Who does the Atlanta State Farmers Market really serve?

 

How Clayton County’s largest city finds itself alienated from the produce terminal

 

By Muriel Vega

Contributing reporting by Jardena Robinson

Photos by Nicole Buchanan

September 13, 2021

  The Forest Park Issue

How we reported this story: Canopy Atlanta asked more than 120 Forest Park community members about the journalism they needed this past spring and summer; this story emerged from that feedback. Jardena Robinson, one of the reporters on this story, is a Canopy Forest Park Fellow, a community member whom Canopy Atlanta paid and trained to learn reporting skills to better serve her community.

FOUR MILES SOUTH OF Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the city of Forest Park offers residents few healthy food options beyond a Piggly Wiggly, convenience stores, and the Atlanta State Farmers Market—the largest in Georgia. Despite an immediate need for healthier food choices here, many Forest Park residents don’t consider the latter a community asset. That sentiment is only reinforced by a disengaged Georgia Department of Agriculture (DOA), the agency that oversees the 80-year-old farmers market.

 

At 150 acres (30 acres smaller than Piedmont Park), the public market area on the grounds features rows of stalls selling bunches of vegetables, fruit, and flowers, alongside small shops offering cooking supplies and piñatas. An isolated sign points to the “Georgia Grown” stalls, but those appeared closed on several occasions in July. Most of what the distributor-rented stalls sell isn’t locally grown, or even from Georgia. The food skews toward the Latinx population, with onions and watermelons beside dried chiles and nopales (cactus). Large bags of masa, an ingredient used to make tamales, are sold at some stalls, as vendors speak Spanish to regulars. 

A family prepares to purchase produce from a stand at the market on a recent Saturday morning.

While produce is affordable, it’s difficult to understand what can be purchased as single items and what must be bought in bulk, sometimes requiring a tax ID. A large watermelon is $6 here. It costs $5.99 at Piggly Wiggly (as of August 2021). 

 

There’s also a landscaping and plant nursery in the back lot, and two locations of the same Mexican restaurant. To the right of the main thoroughfare, buried deep in the warehousing district, a nondescript grocery store sells products in bulk. It’s cash-only and closed on Sundays. 

 

When Bambie Hayes-Brown, PhD, moved to Forest Park in December 2017, she was excited to hear of the nearby state market after being a regular at Your DeKalb Farmers Market. Upon arrival, she found there was no clear signage on where to go. 

 

“I went down to what was a dead end. I thought, ‘This isn’t it. I don’t think I’m supposed to be here,’” she recalls. “Eventually I found the store. The store didn’t have a good selection, and low quality — some of it looked spoiled. You could only buy in bulk, but there’s only three of us [in my house].”

 

After two disappointing visits, Hayes-Brown hasn’t been back. Her sentiments are echoed by other residents Canopy Atlanta spoke to, who said, “I don’t think it’s for me” or “It’s too complicated to navigate.”

 

“I’m originally from South Georgia,” Hayes-Brown says. “When I think of farmers markets, I think about the farmers market that we have back home, where you have local farmers growing fruits and vegetables. The fruits and vegetables don’t have to travel far for it to be sold at the market. And there’s so much variety. This isn’t the same.”

 

The primary customer demographic for this market shifted drastically after it was moved from its original location, in southwest Atlanta, to Forest Park in 1958. It was once seen as a local attraction, with “meet the farmer” days and annual festivals, all lacking in the present iteration.

 

The DOA prioritized the hub in recent years to serve wholesale distributors, with little attention paid to the everyday consumer. An exit sign on I-75 still lists “Forest Park/Farmers Mkt,” but finding the market among the warehouses on Forest Parkway is tricky now, made more challenging by its new name: Atlanta/Clayton County Produce Terminal and Market. The name was changed, without much public fanfare, in 2019.

 

According to DOA Director of Marketing Paul Thompson, this new moniker better represents the “terminal market for the Southeast U.S.” 

 

It also steers the farmers market further away from the idea of serving the community via pedestrian-friendly stalls selling local produce, and more toward wholesale distribution. The agency measures how many semitrucks come through the market each day, but doesn’t have metrics on foot traffic from patrons. The market sees 120 to 140 trucks a day carrying what the DOA claims is “millions of pounds of produce,” much of it already sold to distributors upon arrival. 

 

Customers navigate by car rather than on foot when purchasing produce here. There are no sidewalks. Vehicles weave between each other in crowded corridors lined with stalls, not unlike the departures area at nearby Hartsfield-Jackson (reinforced by the sound of noisy, low-flying planes preparing to land). 

 

For those without access to a car, MARTA bus 195 runs every 45 to 60 minutes along Forest Parkway, stopping near the entrance to the market. At times, people who take the bus must cross a four-lane highway, walk 10 minutes downhill with a cart to carry produce, and avoid cars once the sidewalk ends halfway down the hill. 

Cars weave around parked cars at produce stalls in one of the rows at the market.

PRIOR TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC, 68 percent of Clayton County residents were below the SNAP benefits threshold, according to 2019 Feeding America data, with a food insecurity rate of 11.6 percent. Thompson shares that each stall operator chooses the payment options to offer, including EBT. No EBT signage was on display at stalls in July during multiple trips to the market. 

 

In contrast, local farmers markets, led by organizations like Community Farmers Markets in neighborhoods around Atlanta, double SNAP/EBT to encourage foot traffic and healthy food consumption. But none of the organization’s markets operate in Forest Park or the surrounding area. That’s the need Wande Okunoren-Meadows, executive director of the Little Ones Learning Center, recognized before opening the Little Lions Farm Stand at the school in 2018. 

 

According to the United Way of Greater Atlanta, nearly half a million children in the metropolitan area live in communities with low or very low child well-being scores. The Child Well-Being Map, which represents children’s ability to succeed in their communities, indicates the child score for Forest Park zip code 30297 is 24.9 (very low) out of 100. The regional score averages 61.8. 

 

“If we want to know how well a city is doing, we look at the children,” says Okunoren-Meadows. “We are falling off of the map. Forest Park is the largest city in Clayton County. For us to be scoring so poorly, we should be doing everything that we can to improve our Well-Being Index.”

Wande Okunoren-Meadows founded the Little Lions Farm Stand at the Little Ones Learning Center in 2018.

Powered by the nonprofit Hand, Heart + Soul Project, Little Ones Learning Center uses the curriculum to educate children on the importance of nutritious foods in their diets to maintain health and wellness. Students learn how to grow organic food through on-site programs, with a lot of the farm stand’s produce grown by the children in the back of the learning center, then paired with food purchased at The Common Market Southeast, West Georgia Farmers’ Cooperative, or Atlanta Harvest to support Georgia-based Black and Brown farmers. The center is 2.5 miles from the farmers market.

 

The stand operates from the parking lot at the center the first and third Wednesday of the month and doubles EBT for parents, other family members, and Forest Park residents.

 

But in August 2019, Forest Park city officials shut the stand down, citing zoning issues. The farm stand is located in a residential area not zoned for farm stands, and the city was concerned about traffic control and safety issues due to parking. 

 

The closure received widespread attention from local and national media. The city said that Okunoren-Meadows would have to file a special $50 permit every time the stand opened if she wanted to operate on the Learning Center property. The city manager also feared that if they granted Little Ones a permit, farm stands would pop up everywhere.

 

After a year of back-and-forth with the city, Okunoren-Meadows was able to reopen the stand last summer. Shortly after reopening, the stand distributed over 8,000 boxes of local produce with Farmers to Families Food Boxes, through a partnership with USDA, Hand, Heart + Soul Project, and The Common Market, to community members affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

“If we’re going to change habits, you have to turn it into practice,” says Okunoren-Meadows. “That’s how you get them to buy and teach them to look for organic, sustainably grown food in the stores. And you’re teaching them why our eggs are $6 for a dozen.”

 

After it reopened in 2020, a survey conducted by Little Lions Farm Stand indicated 50 percent of the purchasers were from Forest Park, most from the aforementioned zip code 30297. 

 

“I’ve had parents and children and staff that have started working at Little Ones, or have started attending Little Ones, that were strictly on a fast-food diet,” Okunoren-Meadows says. “I’ve had staff come off their blood pressure medications because we feed them at lunch at the center because of our farm stand.”

 

“While people do visit the [state] farmers market, I don’t think the clientele that visits it are the same sorts of folks who would visit our farm stand,” she adds.

A Forest Park resident purchases produce from the Little Lions Farm Stand. Credit: Wande Okunoren-Meadows

In 2018, students from Clayton State University conducted a market analysis on the state farmers market for a class. The study concluded that the market should focus on infrastructure changes, on diversifying the vendor pool to attract more patrons, and on a direct-to-consumer approach through programming like food truck days, visual art exhibits, and cooking demos by local chefs. These changes would shift its priorities from wholesaling to creating a destination.

 

A multimillion-dollar makeover of the market property was announced that same year, promising similar improvements. But it appears only the plans for a 70,000-square-foot refrigeration building are moving forward. When asked about providing more pedestrian-friendly areas and sidewalks, Thompson indicated it wasn’t currently a priority.

 

Then there’s the Model Mile project, which Forest Park City Council approved in July, allowing the city to move forward with land acquisition, says ​​Director of Planning, Building, and Zoning James Shelby. Preliminary plans call for a pedestrian and bicycle trail connecting Starr Park, in the center of town, with the market two miles away.

 

When asked about the Model Mile and its endpoint at the market, Thompson says he hadn’t heard of the plan, but looks forward to “learning more about the project and exploring ways” the DOA can “assist.”

IT SEEMS, FOR NOW, FOREST PARK RESIDENTS must look elsewhere to find that connection to healthy food options. Okunoren-Meadows hopes this will include the city revitalizing downtown Forest Park and Main Street, and then partnering Little Ones Learning Center with the city to bring the Little Lions Farm Stand there, too. 

 

Recently, the City of Forest Park mayor has extended an olive branch by reaching out and looking for new ways to collaborate with Okunoren-Meadows. This has shifted her relationship with the city in a positive way. It’s a start, she says, and she envisions utilizing some of the space not in use on the city square for the center’s farm stand. 

 

Hayes-Brown is now a customer of the Little Lions Farm Stand, but she still feels more could be done. 

 

“The state could do outreach to us in Forest Park and offer some classes on how to be an urban farmer or grow food. [They could] offer booths for rent to get their cut, and people can sell their produce.”

 

“[There are] opportunities that I could see where the state farmers market could be a community partner,” she continues. “Because I feel like the farmers market is kind of like an island by itself, it’s a silo, instead of being an integrated member and part of the Forest Park community. Let’s do something about it.”

 

Disclosures: United Way of Greater Atlanta is a philanthropic supporter of Canopy Atlanta. Wande Okunoren-Meadows and Bambie Hayes-Brown served on Canopy Atlanta’s Forest Park Community Editorial Board, a group that helped guide story topic choices for this issue. Learn more about how we produced this issue.

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