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Local & State

Charlotte region hungry for more fresh food accessibility
Study: Upgrade farmers markets, support
 
Published Wednesday, July 18, 2018 12:04 pm
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

A report commissioned by the city of Charlotte found the 10-county region's food economy is lagging in access, farmers markets, food security, and wholesale activity.

The Charlotte region is behind in harvesting a homegrown food economy.


The report commissioned by the city of Charlotte examines farming in a 10-county area, including the number of farmers markets, wholesale activity, access and security. The study is a snapshot of the relationship between the food economy, economic development and food security.


A forum on the final plan and public feedback will be held July 24 at UNC Charlotte Center City at 6 p.m.


“The city believes this is a community issue. It’s not the city doing this alone,” Tom Warshauer, assistant director of community engagement at the city’s Department of Housing and Neighborhood Services told UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute website. “Food is part of the regional economy, he said, and access to fresh and healthy food is important to the community. The city has been helping fund community gardens and school gardens. “Food seemed to be an important part of the region.”


The Charlotte region reaches north to Iredell County, south to Chester and Lancaster counties in South Carolina, west to Gaston and Lincoln counties and Union County in the east.
Findings from the study about the region, which has the second-highest rate of agricultural sales of 11 benchmark metro areas:


• State-run regional farmers markets trail others in North Carolina in terms of size, amenities and visitors.


• Markets in Mecklenburg County are poorly coordinated, which forces farmers to navigate venues and rules that make it hard for shoppers to find consistent information about operating hours.


• The region underperforms in direct-to-consumer sales, where farmers sell directly to the consumer such as at a farmers market.


• Charlotte “severely underperforms” in markets accepting federal SNAP, or food stamps, compared to the U.S. as a whole and in the benchmark metro regions.


• The Charlotte region lacks a well-coordinated and well-marketed system of farmer support services.


• Mecklenburg is the only major urban county in the state that hasn’t adopted a Voluntary Agricultural District.


• Black, Latino and Asian farmers are growing in number.


The 22-acre Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, built in 1985 and one of the largest in the region, attracts 500,000 visitors a year, according to the report, but lags the other three state-run facilities. Raleigh (3.5 million visitors). Greensboro-Winston Salem (1.8 million) and Asheville (1.4 million) draw at least three times more people than the Charlotte facility.


A key point of separation between regional markets is amenities. Charlotte doesn’t have wholesale facilities or a restaurant. The report noted one of the five sheds at Charlotte’s market is vacant.


Among its recommendations, the report says the city could “pursue improvements to the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market” by:


• Researching the market’s customer base to learn more about visitors and why people do or don’t shop there.


• Centralize SNAP acceptance and add a Double Bucks program, which increases the buying power of food stamps.


• Improve visibility and access,  with transportation, new entrance and street connections to neighborhoods.


Charlotte government launched the study to look at the role of farmers markets and food in improving residents’ and neighborhoods’ health, in addition to economic development by keeping shoppers – and their money – local.


“We used to hear, ‘I want to open a farmers market, but there aren’t enough farmers to staff all the markets that we want,’” Warshauer said. “That was one of the initial questions – is there sufficient market opportunity to meet the demand?”

In addition to making improvements to the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, the report’s recommends:


• Creation of a farmers market association, led by market managers and sponsors, to coordinate and strengthen existing and new markets.


• Explore launching accessible public markets and farmers markets.


• Maintain and increase regional food production by supporting career paths and better livelihoods for farmers.


“People still want to meet the farmers,” Warshauer said. “They want to go to the market. Cities around the world are investing in urban markets. Despite the ‘Amazon-ing’ of so many products, people still want the markets.”

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