On a warm Alabama afternoon, Darryl Gurley peruses the summer squash, green peppers and freshly picked tomatoes that farmer Danny Campbell has brought to the parking lot of Meadow Drive Baptist Church in the Huntsville neighborhood of Terry Heights-Hillandale. It’s the first season of the Terry Heights Farmers’ Market, and having even a couple of vendors here on this Wednesday counts as a victory for Gurley.
This market was born of failure. Gurley, a retired finance professor whose grandfather developed the neighborhood on the old family farm, noticed that there was no grocery store in a one-mile radius. “People did not have good access to fresh produce,” he says. He tried to start a food co-op, “but we couldn’t get anyone to lend money,” he says. “So this was the next best thing.”
Gurley, in partnership with a local ministry called Second Mile, convinced Meadow Drive Baptist Church to host the market. “It’s an opportunity to minister to people with a real need,” he says. “We need to get people eating better.”
Gurley isn’t alone in his thinking. The growing focus on better diets has helped propel growth of farmers’ markets nationwide. The number of farmers’ markets registered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture has more quadrupled since 1994, to some 8,100 this year. There’s no comprehensive data on markets hosted by houses of worship — many smaller ones aren’t registered — but anecdotal evidence indicates a strong recent uptick. And while one synagogue in New York and a Buddhist temple in Hawaii have started markets, the vast majority are organized by Christian congregations.
“We have too many churches that want markets and not enough coordinators,” says Lauren Nischan, who manages farmers’ markets at the Churches’ Center for Land and People, which runs winter church markets in Wisconsin. This year, Nischan will oversee eight in Milwaukee and eight in Madison — six more than last year. “There’s a changing awareness of food and where it comes from. This is touching core values of people in faith, which is a very meaningful thing.”
One reason is purely practical: available space. “In Madison County, except for one on public property, all the others are in the yards of churches,” says Jim Patterson, a Republican state representative whose church in Meridianville, Alabama, hosts a market. “We want every neighborhood to have a fresh produce market, and they don’t necessarily have to be on a church site. But churches have space — and this one has shade. At 3 o’clock in the afternoon in May, June, July and August, you want shade.”
Host churches have multiple bottom lines. “Our main purpose is to expose shoppers to quality fresh fruit and vegetables and to have them shop locally,” says Gary Aleman, who helps organize a market at Stow Community United Church of Christ in Ohio. “We want people to purchase things that are not only good for them but also supportive of a local vender who is trying to make a living.”
The Stow market has also helped refill the pews. “We’ve exposed hundreds if not thousands of people to the church,” Aleman says. “That’s not our main purpose, but we’ve definitely benefited from some new members coming to the church.”
From a public-policy perspective, churches are ideal partners, providing community credibility and easy access in lower-income areas whose demographics will never attract retailers like Whole Foods. “They are fairly stable institutions, and they often have a community-service aspect to their mission,” says Joel Gittelsohn, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Churches have been used to dealing with all sorts of public health problems.”
Churches with existing health-related programming are particularly likely to support farmers’ markets. The Seventh-day Adventists, for instance, “are heavily interested in what you need to do to eat right,” Gittelsohn says. “It fits with their doctrine very closely.” SDA churches host markets in communities small and big — Berlin, N.H., Honolulu, Atlanta, Los Angeles.
Three years ago, after Michelle Obama called on churches to help fight childhood obesity, the denomination launched Adventists In Step for Life, an initiative that has since created more than 100 new farmers’ markets and church vegetable gardens. Said Katia Reinert, leader of the SDA effort: “It is our hope that every Adventist church will become a center for health in the community.”
But like other start-ups, farmers’ markets often fail. An Oregon State University study from 1998 to 2005 found that nearly a quarter of new markets in Oregon didn’t return for a second season. About half didn’t make it to the four-year mark. But if they can survive that long, they “become remarkably resilient,” economist Larry Lev, who led the study, told Farmers’ Markets Today. Those communities “will figure out ways to support their markets.”
Darryl Gurley hopes so. On June 4, the day the Terry Heights market debuted, two farmers came. They piled their tables with peppers, collard greens, early tomatoes, herbs and preserves. Fifteen shoppers showed up. But word spread throughout the summer about what was happening in the church parking lot. And Gurley ensured prices were equal to or lower than the nearest supermarkets’. “At the peak, tomatoes were running $1.25 a pound in most grocery stores,” he says. “We were selling them for $1 a pound, and these were picked that day or the day before.”
The season’s last market, on October 2, drew 120 people. There were beans. Squash. Pumpkins. Tomatoes. Some greens. Shoppers gossiped, exchanged recipes and nagged Gurley gently about next year.
“It’s been a challenge, but everyone said, ‘We need it again!’” he says. He’s hopeful, noting that his market’s motivations and metrics of success are intangible. “For me, this was a step of faith. If I love you, I want you to not just survive but to thrive. You can eat junk food and you’ll survive, but you won’t thrive.”
Gurley pauses before paraphrasing Jesus’s words from the 13th chapter of the Gospel according to John: “And they will know us by our love.” He promises the market will be back in 2014.