It is an overcast Saturday. The streets are quiet, and the sky is heavy with the promise of snow. Peer through the glass windows of AS220: vague forms are visible milling about the performance space. Push inside the heavy door and the cacophony of smells, sights, sounds evokes memories of picking raspberries or tasting tomatoes on a long-ago summer day. This is where the Providence Farmers' Market takes shelter for the winter.
The bluegrass band starts up, twin banjos twanging in jangled harmony on top of the stomping beat set by an upright bass. A flannel-clad fiddler cries out hymnal lyrics over the reel. There are farm-fresh eggs, earthy potatoes and homemade cheeses. A taciturn man sells briny oysters by the dozen from an ice bucket the size of a bathtub. A girl sidesteps through the crowd, pressing cups of hot apple cider into the hands of those wandering in from the cold. Its spice infuses the air and the music with warmth and draws smiles from the chapped lips of city-worn customers.
Farm Fresh RI (FFRI) says that its farmers' markets "add a distinctly rural dimension to the urban landscape and reinforce the value of vibrant public spaces in our modern lives." At first glance, such sentiments seem to be at odds with the reality of downtown Providence, where much of the population counts itself among the urban poor. Generally, a person living on the wages from a part time job isn't seeking the experience of buying food directly from the farmer who grew it. Instead, they're trying to get the most food for their money. The typical patrons of farmers' markets have enough money in their food budget to support the extra costs of buying organic or locally grown foods. Noah Fulmer, executive director of FFRI, told the Independent that usually "farmer's markets are in neighborhoods with a wealthier clientele."
However, FFRI is taking steps to change the nature of its markets in order to make them more accessible to everyone. Under the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) benefits program, low-income mothers receive $15 per season to spend at farmers' markets. Rhode Island's food stamp benefits (EBT food stamps) are generally intended for use at supermarkets. During the summer season of 2007, FFRI paired up with Rhode Island's Department of Human Services to allow customers to pay for farmers' market purchases with EBT food stamps, making it possible for low-income families to purchase more organic, locally grown foods with the funds allocated them.
The idea was conceived following the release of the 2006 Rhode Island Community Food Bank Hunger Issues Report. The report found that Rhode Island ranked 49th out of 50 states in the growth of the use of its food stamps program—despite experiencing a 56 percent increase in hunger over the past six years. Every year, a smaller percentage of low-income familes partook in the food stamps program. FFRI interpreted the report as an opportunity to make farm-fresh food more widely available to anyone, regardless of economic status.
To participate in the program, a food stamps-eligible patron (generally, a family earning less than $1504 per month) swipes their card at a station and receives one-dollar tokens to spend. The tokens may be redeemed for any fresh food product in the market. At the end of the day, vendors receive a check for the amount of tokens they accumulate.
Since its inception, the market has taken in approximately $500 from food stamp users, according to Fulmer. Technical difficulties with FFRI's card swiping machine curtailed the food stamps program at first. Also, says Fulmer, "not many people know about [the program] yet." But he hopes that word will spread and the number of food stamps customers will increase during the summer season, when more markets open up around Providence.
There was a similar consensus among the vendors: not many customers have paid with food stamps yet. But, as one bespectacled farmer said, weighing a bag of apples, "They're always welcome."
The sight of customers reaching into wooden crates to examine potatoes or to knock hollowly on the sides of gourds is familiar to anyone who has ever stopped at a roadside stand, perhaps for sweet corn or for strawberries. Even in this dimly lit room, located on a city block, the simple purity of the farmer's market is evident. It is a quiet communion between fruit and nostril, between farmer and customer. And now, for many of Providence's low-income families, the taste of organic and locally grown fruits is not forbidden any longer.
AUDREY VON MALUSKI B'10 eats sweet corn in the summertime.