June 12 marked the opening of the Congo Square Market at Ithaca’s Southside Community Center. Advertising live music, delectable Cuban cuisine, local produce and textile vendors, 305 S. Plain Street promised a cultural feast for the senses.
Despite the success of the Ithaca Farmer’s Market at Steamboat Landing, the new market came to be in response to claims that only a small demographic of Ithacans utilize the Steamboat Landing market’s resources. This new market — which is open on Fridays from 4:00-8:00 p.m. through Sept. 4 — represents just one of several recent efforts to extend the offerings of the Ithaca Farmer’s Market to a more diverse group of Ithacans, including lower income residents and ethnic communities.
“The [Ithaca] Farmer’s Market has an unspoken agenda based on the clientele,” stated Jhakeem Haltom, founder of Ithaca’s Congo Square Market, in describing what compelled him to organize the market at the Southside Community Center. “There is a community [of people of color] … who feel marginalized. … It would be nice to have a marketplace accessible [to them.]”
The new market is named after the celebrated Congo Square Market of New Orleans, a Sunday market in the antebellum South where slaves were allowed to gather freely one day of the week for music and dancing.
“Slaves were able to have a day to commune and relate in their native cultural context,” Haltom explained. “[It was] a place of freedom for oppressed people. [We want] a space to repeat that idea in our marketplace.”
The Ithaca Farmer’s Market is also working to increase its accessibility to lower income Ithacans. The weekend market currently accepts food stamps, as well as Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program coupons, which are issued to low-income senior citizens, women, infants and children through a partnership between the federal Food and Nutrition Service and state agencies. The coupons may be used to purchase produce and other specific, non-prepared foods.
“99 percent of our vendors accept FMNP coupons,” Cathryn Koken, manager of the Ithaca Farmer’s Market, stated in an e-mail.
Additionally, the market operates a wireless Electronic Benefits Transfer machine, which allows people to charge their food stamp debit card in exchange for wooden tokens that may be used at the farmer’s market.
However, obstacles remain for assistance program recipients seeking to shop at local markets.
“None of the markets I’m currently involved in — Groton, Danby [or] Trumansburg — have an EBT machine yet,” Avi Miner, market coordinator in charge of the EBT program at Cornell Cooperative Extension, stated in an e-mail.
Additionally, the assistance programs restrict what goods can be purchased using these benefitd. In a market adorned with local wines, beers and prepared delicacies, these restrictions can make the landscape confusing as well as uncomfortable for food benefit recipients shopping among more wealthy consumers.
“WIC [women, infants and children] and senior checks are very limited. You can generally only buy designated items such as produce, baby formula, milk, bread and other staples,” Miner explained. “Market specific tokens [can be spent] only on produce that they would be allowed to purchase using food stamps and only with vendors who have signed up for the program.”
Although 99 percent of the Ithaca Farmer’s Market vendors say they accept FMNP coupons, there are no obvious signs or postings advertising the market’s participation in the FMNP, forcing curious customers to inquire verbally.
Perhaps as a consequence of this lack of publicity, most vendors claim to receive no more than one or two customers paying with some form of food benefits per weekend.
“I’ve never had anybody in the year and a half I’ve been here,” explained the saleswoman at Fingerlakes Flatbreads.
Sacred Seed, a vendor selling homegrown organic produce, announced that approximately 2 percent of their total transactions involve assistance program tokens or coupons.
Beyond the practical complications preventing lower income Ithacans from shopping at the market, other more complex issues remain.
“There are many layers and dimensions to the barriers preventing/discouraging people from accessing the abundance of available local fresh foods,” Elizabeth Karabinakis, community food educator with the Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty, stated in an e-mail. “Efforts underway to address these barriers … [include] producing educational resources to help people identify and learn how to store and prepare less common varieties of produce.”
Miner also noted that educating people about the advantages of buying local produce will be essential in breaking old consumer habits.
“One of the biggest challenges with implementing this [EBT] program will be getting people to change the routines they have for getting food and managing already limited funds. Education about the nutritional, economic and environmental benefits of buying local produce will be key in achieving this.”
As extensions of the Ithaca Farmer’s Market appear in locations other than Steamboat Landing — Dewitt Park, for instance, will host a Thursday evening market for the remainder of the summer — many hope that new audiences will be able to enjoy the products of the Finger Lakes.