The Fulton Street Farmers Market
was one of the first markets established in Grand Rapids in the early 1900s, but the only one that would sell directly to consumers versus to wholesalers. While new technology was enabling food to travel longer distances, food prices were increasing. A group of housewives decided to utilize the farmland that surrounded them to establish the market. It was a grassroots effort made possible with community volunteers. And as the Market celebrates its 90th birthday this year, it's still a community project. On Saturday, May 5, the Market will experience a rebirth as its renovation is revealed to the public at 7:45 a.m., right before opening to shoppers for the year.
"I used to avoid coming here on Saturdays," admits Christine Helms-Maletic, Fulton Street Farmers Market's Project Development Manager. "It was always so crowded."
But space wasn't the only issue facing the Farmers Market. A deteriorating facility, pot holes in the parking lot and an unkempt appearance were additional factors in deciding to renovate. "The vendors didn't have access to electricity and water in a way that would have made their jobs easier," Helms-Maletic says. "They had to get up very early and set their tarps up and break them down at the end of the day."
Additionally, the Market felt as though if they didn't keep up with other markets making improvements, their vendors might find those other markets more attractive. "It made sense to us," Helms-Maletic says, "that the facility really needed the work and if we didn't do it, it would be detrimental."
The Market is managed by the Midtown Neighborhood Association and operates as a 501c3. The Association saw that the Market was beneficial to the community for numerous reasons. Not only did customers get to support local farms by purchasing food that had not traveled hundreds of miles to reach them, they also were likely to stimulate the local economy by visiting other neighborhood businesses nearby. The Market also serves as a "community gathering place," Helms-Maletic says. "This is a place unique in the city where you have ethnic, generational, educational and economic diversity."
For all these reasons, it was decided the Market needed to be sustainable and maintained to continue to benefit the community it served. Funding from six mayor players -- The Wege Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Steelcase Foundation, the Frey Foundation, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the Dyer Ives Foundation -- made a renovation possible. The new market is much larger with updated infrastructure and aesthetics. But what attracted a donor like the Kellogg Foundation is the continued commitment to make sure the whole community feels comfortable shopping among its stalls, and that it's affordable.
"There was a perception that the market was more expensive -- that it was a boutique kind of shop rather than a grocer," Helms-Maletic says. "We began to work very hard at promoting the market as an affordable place to shop for the healthiest food you're going to find."
In 2009, the Market began accepting Electronic Benefit Transfers (EBT) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), processing $17k worth. The following year, increased outreach led to a total of $52k worth of purchases using EBT. Last year, however, the Market started offering Fair Food Network's Double Up Food Bucks
. "When people came to swipe their card, they'd get a dollar-to-dollar match up to $20 per day," Helms-Maletic says. "That blew the doors off. Last year, we processed $117k in benefits with over $100k in Double Up Food Bucks. It was nearly a quarter of a million dollars of benefits to low-income families."
This commitment to making sure every demographic has access to the fresh goods offered at the Farmers Market was part of why the W.K. Kellogg Foundation as well as the Fair Food Network became interested in the project. But another benefit beyond that, Helms-Maletic points out, is it's money that went into the pockets of local, small, family farms last year.
"The response of the community to [this program] was just overwhelming, and the response of the volunteers has been great," she says. While the program has been a tough one to implement, complete with all sorts of paperwork and new technologies to learn, she can tell you stories of shoppers who are grateful to the program and the access to affordable, healthy sustenance it provides, as well as the benefits the farmers feel. This year, the farmers have agreed to increase stall fees. This money, as well as money from their grants, will go towards hiring another full-time employee, as well as one half-time staff member, to assist with the growing market.
Additionally, the Market plans to supply 100 iPods to their vendors so that food assistance cards can be swiped right at each booth. "We're the only county in the U.S. that's running this program," Helms-Maletic says. "And the food bucks will work this way, too, which will eliminate people having to come through the office to get their tokens."
The Fulton Street Farmers Market opens this Saturday, May 5 at 8 a.m. Hours for the season are Tues, Weds., Fri. and Sat. 8 a.m.-3 p.m, with extended hours on Weds. 4-7:30 p.m. June through September. The public is invited to a ribbon cutting on Saturday at 7:45 a.m. with speakers including Mayor George Heartwell, Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss and FSFM Campaign Chairperson Diane Griffin. Fundraising will continue in hopes of building a new, year-round building and wheelchair-accessible restrooms at both ends of the market.
J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media.
Christine Helms-Maletic, Fulton Street Farmers Market project development manager, stands in the remodel of the Fulton St. Farmers Market.
Photography by ADAM BIRD