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Local Freshness, Even in February

Boone Winter Market addresses food equity, accessibility concerns

Winters in the High Country are cold and overcast, and not much fresh food is available. However, five years ago, the Boone Winter Farmers’ Market opened at the Agricultural Center near downtown King Street, giving farmers a place to sell goods and make local food available for consumers year round. 


The Winter Market is operated by Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture, which is a woman-led group working to build community around local food. It envisions an “equitable and sustainable food system where producers are thriving and local food is accessible to all,” according to its website


Taylor Hochwarth, local food markets and equitable food systems designer with AmeriCorps and BRWIA, explains that food equity is when everyone can access healthy and delicious food that addresses and meets their needs, including making food accessible and affordable. They also describe food systems as connections around food in a community, such as: markets, grocery stores, food equity programs, mutual aid groups, restaurants, waste disposal, the community’s values around food and more. The Winter Market helps make local food accessible and affordable when fresh produce isn’t often available. 


“A community is only as equitable as its ability to reach those with the least opportunity, privilege and access,” Hochwarth said. “Shaming people for not eating local food is not going to solve anything. There are plenty of people in Boone who don’t have transportation to get food, time to cook the food, or a place to cook. And there are lots of efforts here to address these needs.”


Part of addressing a community’s food access needs includes providing farmers with enough income to farm full-time. In Statesville, near Wilkes County, Kevin Lovill grows pork and beef at Forgotten Ways Farm. Although Forgotten Ways was founded in 2019, it recently got its start selling at the Winter Market as well as the farmers’ market in Greensboro. Forgotten Ways needed an outlet to sell to retail clients, and the Winter Market generates most of its income. 


“Right now, I’d say 75% (of our income). We’re a fairly new farm, this is technically our first year, so it’s a big portion of it right now,” Lovill said.


Farmers’ markets, including the Winter Market, allow farmers to sell their produce directly, which keeps money in a community as well as providing local food for consumers. However, Hochwarth said farmers’ markets can be more expensive than supermarket produce, and not everyone can drive to a market early on a Saturday morning. Over 20% of people in Watauga County live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census. BRWIA addresses these food accessibility concerns through the King Street Market, which meets Tuesday evenings, and the Winter Market outside of usual growing seasons. Both markets are also close to bus stops and participate in Double Up Food Bucks. 


“The Double Up Food Bucks program is Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture’s food equity program,” said Ellie Mullis, the Double Up Food Bucks & farmers’ market manager. “We do private fundraising to be able to match people’s federal nutrition benefits.”


Someone receiving food assistance — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, WIC farmer’s market vouchers or the Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program — can come to any of the four markets BRWIA operates and swipe their card at the manager’s table. The card is pre-authorized for a dollar amount, and Mullis then returns double the amount in cardboard tokens accepted at the market. So, if someone swiped their benefits card for $20, they would receive $40 in tokens to spend at the market.


Mullis said more people participate in the Double Up Food Bucks program in July and August, about 30 or 40 people per week. In the winter, three to five people usually use it per week, but when the weather is bad fewer people come to the market. 


The Winter Market also provides opportunities for unconventional goods to take root. William Johnson, who owns and operates Mountain Flowers Hemp, started selling during the last three weeks of the King Street market in the fall. This is his first season at the Winter Market, but he’ll be at the Watauga County Farmers’ Market in the summer. He only sells his CBD hemp flower directly to consumers, and farmers’ markets provide the opportunity to interact with them. 


“It also helps me to destigmatize it a little bit, make it a little more normal and perhaps bring a crowd that was not already coming here,” Johnson said.


Mullis said the market prioritizes fruits, vegetables and other foods, but it does accept crafts and other special products such as the aforementioned hemp, soaps and pottery based on the space available. They accept everyone when they can, but when space constraints exist they give preference based on proximity to the market, uniqueness and consistency with the market in the past. 


Prospective vendors fill out an online application posted on the BRWIA website around October and promoted on social media. If the prospective vendor’s goods require a certification — like baked goods, which require a state kitchen inspection and certification — it’s due with the application. Otherwise, it includes information about the business and what it intends to sell. 


One of the few vendors not selling food, Cullen Beasley and Ballard Reynolds sit behind a table covered with a yellow floral tablecloth, an information sign-up sheet and a trifold cardboard display with “B.A.D. Composting” written in a font that looks like the worms composting relies on. With a group, they founded local compost cooperative Born Again Dirt Composting to get food waste out of the landfill system, Beasley said, and started coming to the Winter Market for the current season. 


Reynolds said they usually would have 5-gallon buckets available, already lined and ready for consumers to take home and fill with food scraps for a pickup driver to get later, but they sign more people on at the beginning of market seasons compared with the end. However, Beasley and Reynolds were still giving away seeds from an enormous bag of fruit and vegetable seeds that another store had intended to throw away before a member of the compost cooperative asked to take them.


The Winter Market attracts established vendors as well. Will Thomas, who farms full-time at Creeksong Farm in Ashe County, North Carolina, says he “grows everything.” Thomas has been selling at the Winter Market for 4 years in addition to the Watauga County Farmers’ Market in the summer. His father, Jeff Thomas, who founded the farm in 1976, has been selling vegetables at the Watauga County Farmers’ Market since 1979.


Creeksong Farm’s table at the Winter Market was covered in leafy lettuces, with cells of orange, purple, pink and yellow petunias lined up on the ground in front. He says he uses season-extension techniques, including greenhouses and row covers, to keep growing outside of the traditional growing season. 


As the Winter Market concludes, BRWIA operates other markets and a Food Hub, where consumers can order directly from farmers and pick up in the same location, the Agricultural Conference Center. They can also attend the King Street Market, which also accepts Double Up Food Bucks. Hochwarth, the local food markets and equitable food systems designer, emphasizes supporting local food year round.


“Supporting local food benefits the local food system like a cycle by getting money to farmers, then creating economic opportunity for more people, then having more farmers makes more fresh, nutritious food available for the community, and keeps money in the local economy which makes buying that food more accessible,” Hochwarth said.

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