New Bellevue farmers market gets off to slow start
SCHENECTADY The humidity was less of a problem than the gray clouds gathering above. Soft droplets patter the tops of canopied booths at the Bellevue Market, causing a few shoppers to shuffle beneath tent roofs and Jacquie Hurd to look worriedly around the parking lot of Maranatha Ministries.
The vendor from Taj Mahal pulls crumpled foil back over tins of Indian food and the man from Abbey Farms covers the baked goods he brought from his Amsterdam farm.
In about five minutes, the light rain sends the few remaining shoppers scurrying out of the lot, where festive balloons dance in the breeze by the entrance.
It’s a dismal start to this week’s Bellevue Market, a new satellite of the successful Schenectady Greenmarket that opens for three hours every Thursday afternoon in the small church lot off of Broadway.
“I think it’s been slowly building,” says Hurd, the former president of the Bellevue Preservation Association, who lobbied for the farmers market. “I’d love to see it busier, but it’s not an overnight kind of thing.”
Community leaders want the Bellevue Market to do well in its first season, which kicked off in June. They don’t expect it to do what the Schenectady Greenmarket did almost overnight for downtown, but they do hope that by September’s end they can look back at this as more than a failed trial run.
So the rain worries Hurd and association President Julie Lewis, if only momentarily, as they watch potential customers clear out of the market that they helped bring to the neighborhood.
With anywhere from 10 to 15 vendor booths, the market offers fresh vegetables, fruits, meats and prepared foods each week. And for four months of the year, it’s eliminating a food desert by providing healthy and affordable food within walking distance from the Bellevue neighborhood.
If it’s successful, it could easily be the model that other Schenectady neighborhoods use to address their own food deserts. At its simplest, a food desert is just a shortage of supermarkets in a particular area. At its worst, it’s another hurdle for low-income and minority residents to overcome in achieving a healthy lifestyle.
“If you come up Broadway, there are no supermarkets, not even a small convenience store that sells fresh fruits or vegetables,” said Hurd.
There’s some milk, bread and a few pieces of produce inside the neighborhood’s Bonfare store. But when residents want fresh vegetables, fruit or other groceries, it usually means a drive to Price Chopper or Hannaford on Altamont Avenue — a real task for lower-income residents without transportation.
Three years ago, the Bellevue Preservation Association searched for an answer. At the same time, Hamilton Hill and Central State Street were dealing with the same thing — no supermarkets, no fresh produce and a demographic much worse off.
A grocery store hasn’t moved into either neighborhood since then, prompting a few puzzled queries when Bellevue was chosen as a satellite location for the Schenectady Greenmarket offshoot.
“We’re seeing a lot of communities in need of access to healthy food,” said Diane Eggert, executive director of the New York State Farmers’ Market Federation.
A farmers market is never going to replace a supermarket, she pointed out. You can’t stop into a farmers market and grab toothpaste or a bottle of ketchup, and you can’t do it at 11 p.m.
But the farmers market is an excellent method of addressing food deserts because it offers healthy and affordable food where there previously was none. And they certainly take up less space and cost less money than a supermarket.
There are 560 farmers markets in the state and the number is growing, said Eggert, but they continue to be hard to find in low-income neighborhoods.
Ten years ago, the state experimented with a program allowing farmers markets to use wireless technology to accept food stamp benefits. It wasn’t until three or four years ago that this became a common practice, though.
“When that started happening we were able to bring farmers into those food deserts, make it profitable and provide those residents with fresh, healthy foods,” she said. “So we really started to push the program into a lot of markets around the state.”
In 2010, farmers markets across the state sold $1.6 million worth of food that was purchased with food stamps. By the next year, food stamp purchases reached $2.5 million.
“The amount of food stamp benefits used at farmers markets increases every year,” said Eggert. “So more and more people are really taking advantage of the fresh, healthy food we’re making available.”
Still, she emphasized, most farmers markets are created with the mission of promoting local farmers, not eliminating food deserts. And it’s usually the markets with a proven track record and management team that even bother to open satellite markets, she added.
That’s why Austin Fisher is hesitant to say whether the turnout on a rainy Thursday afternoon is what the Schenectady Greenmarket had expected. In fact, the vice chair of the board is careful to say the Schenectady Greenmarket didn’t really even have any expectations when they opened in Bellevue.
He’s filling in for his daughter Claire, who usually manages the new Bellevue Market but was ill last week. The mood is lifting as the rain fizzles out and people start to filter through the parking lot once more.
Sure, it started off a little slow. The 300 to 400 weekly patrons at the satellite market are no Sunday on Jay Street, but it’s a steady clientele that the board, neighborhood association and vendors hope to build on.
“In my opinion we’re slowly gaining momentum,” said Fisher. “Whether or not it’s sustainable in the long run, we don’t know. We’re going to have to evaluate it. But it’s not headed in the wrong direction. It’s slowly moving forward.”
Fred Lee has seen slow progress, as well, but of a different kind. Although Hamilton Hill residents had once tried to get their own farmers market close to home, they’ve since lost interest.
“I’m not convinced that the issue is of the same importance it was at one point,” said Lee, president of the Hamilton Hill Neighborhood Association.
Small businesses have opened up in the neighborhood, he said, that offer fresh vegetables and different kinds of food. But it’s unlikely that Hamilton Hill residents can find grass-fed beef or chicken raised without hormones or antibiotics within walking distance.
That’s what brought Linda Gadus to the Bellevue Market for the past three weeks. The 60-year-old Duanesburg resident was happy to learn that the farmers market would be a new offering in the neighborhood where she works.
“I’d rather support the local farmers and the local people,” she said, holding a paper bag full of jalapeno peppers, cucumbers, parsley and scallions. “I’d rather do that and get to know the people that are here. And I trust them more than the big industrial organization of food that’s out there now. You don’t know what’s in food anymore.”
When the Schenectady Greenmarket opened in November 2008 it was an almost overnight success. Organizers had done their research, found vendors who were committed and actually produced the food they would sell. In addition, the market set up shop right in the heart of downtown — in front of City Hall in the summer and inside Proctors’ Robb Alley during the winters.
The Schenectady Greenmarket won a nearly $7,000 state grant in May that covers all the first-year costs of the Bellevue Market.
But the Bellevue venture doesn’t have the bustle of a downtown market. Thousands of people typically turn out for the Schenectady Greenmarket’s opening weekend each summer.
The Bellevue market doesn’t have the more than 75 booths that Schenectady Greenmarket has. But it does have some of its loyal Sunday vendors — like Abbey Farms in Amsterdam, Bella Terra Farm in Sprakers, West Wind Acres in West Charlton and Adirondack Flower Farm in Granville.
“If there isn’t demand for it, it won’t exist,” said Fisher. “This is an opportunity to test the market. It’s for the community. So if the community has a need for it then there’ll be business and it will continue. If there isn’t the need, then it might not continue in the long run.”
Bellevue is still a food desert to preservation association president Lewis. Since the market is so seasonable and open once a week, she doesn’t feel comfortable classifying the neighborhood otherwise.
She’ll keep coming out to her booth each week with Hurd, though. They’ll monitor the foot traffic, observe what’s working and what’s not, and talk about what’s going on in the neighborhood.