Can farmers markets spur economic, community redevelopment in Reading?

Susan Shelly, Contributing Writer//April 20, 2021

Can farmers markets spur economic, community redevelopment in Reading?

Susan Shelly, Contributing Writer//April 20, 2021//

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Farmers markets, such as this one in Easton, add vibrancy to cities that can foster economic development, experts say. PHOTO / EASTON FARMERS MARKET

Farmers markets not only provide opportunities for people to get local produce, meats, eggs, baked goods and other items, they also can be significant contributors to urban economies.

But public markets, which in many communities have disappeared, or are under threat of disappearing, have been shown to promote public health, bring people together and support local vendors, said Kelly Verel, senior director of programs and projects with the New York City-based Project for Public Spaces. Verel, and Kurt Wheeler, also of the Project for Public Spaces, outlined way farmers markets can benefit downtowns at the Berks Alliance Community Forum, “Urban Farmers Markets and Downtown Development.”

Project for Public Spaces is an organization that helps cities plan and design public spaces. It recently launched a Market Cities Initiative, aimed at helping cities build, preserve or expand their public markets and assure they are productive and beneficial to the communities they serve.

The Market City strategy encourages public markets to join together to operate as one system instead of individual businesses. Cities of varying sizes can work toward becoming market cities, Verel said, but need the support of local government, businesses and agencies to be successful.

Aaron Gantz, senior director of economic development for the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance (GRCA), hopes Reading will consider becoming a Market City.

“The Market City model is definitely something we would love to contemplate for our community as we look to the future,” Gantz said after the session held last week. “The presentation today was a great introduction to the concept, and I hope it will be the start of community and organization-based conversation around collaboration and common goals.”

Reading has a long history of farmers markets, noted Courtney Shober, manager of the Penn Street Market, which is open in downtown Reading from June through September. And while those markets have changed in many ways, the purpose of them has stayed the same.

The Penn Street Market has been beneficial to vendors and residents, she said, providing educational programs, art and culture presentation, fitness demonstrations and other activities in addition to wholesome foods for residents who may have trouble finding them elsewhere.

Alex Roche is the project manager of the Reading branch of The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that works to assure everyone has access to affordable, nutritious foods and to educate residents regarding the benefits of those foods. He said the introduction of Berks Farm Bucks in 2013 greatly increased the amount of spending at farmer’s markets and other locations that sell fresh produce in Reading and the surrounding area.

The Berks Farm Bucks program provides extra spending power to people who use WIC, SNAP or ACCESS cards to purchase local produce and goods. When the program was instated in Reading, only $2,000 was spent at city farmer’s markets and other locations where local produce was sold.

By 2020, that spending had increased by nearly 500%, Roche said. And, as residents used their WIC, SNAP or ACCESS cards, they were awarded Berks Farm Bucks, enabling them to buy additional produce and related products.

The Food Trust currently is working with the owners of corner stores in Reading to get them to stock fresh, local produce. “When we get local produce in those stores it means residents can buy it at better prices, and local farmers benefit, as well,” Roche said.

David Myers, an adviser at Berks Alliance, noted that Allentown and Lancaster have used farmers markets as anchors for redevelopment and there is interest in Reading for doing the same. The presence of farmers markets contributes to a community in many ways, he said, including economically.