By LINDSAY MYERS — After several seasons of lackluster sales and attendance, the Hyattsville Farmers Market is changing dates and location for the 2018 season. This year, the market will take place on the third Friday of every month in conjunction with the city’s Summer Jam celebrations.
The health benefits of shopping at a farmers market are well known — fresh produce harvested the same day that it’s sold, meat and fish sans ethical debate, local vendors who know your name. Recently, however, farmers markets have become about more than just the food. Local markets, like those in Riverdale, Cheverly and College Park, have turned shopping the market into an event. Offering live music, food tents, story hours and even the occasional pop-up library — these markets have become places for neighbors to come together and while away long summer days.
This is what Ellarose Preston wants for the Hyattsville market, too.
In 2016, Preston said that she wanted the market “to be the place to be on Tuesday [nights].” During the three years it was held at Redeemer Lutheran Church on East-West Highway, however, the market never attracted the crowds that Preston, her colleagues at the city and, most importantly, her vendors, were hoping for.
Lack of walkability and visibility seem to have been contributing factors in the market’s spotty attendance. Catherine Calvi, a resident of Hyattsville and a frequent patron of local farmers markets says she wasn’t even aware that the Hyattsville market was there.
“I have never been to the Hyattsville market because I never saw it and never knew where it was,” said Calvi.
While other local markets are not necessarily visible, many are tucked into walkable neighborhoods or have grown in reputation as “the place to be” because of the live music, good food and activities for kids that keep families around after the parents have finished shopping. Partnering with Summer Jam brings all of these elements to the Hyattsville market.
Preston says she hopes the “captured audience” at Summer Jam will help the market increase its sales and enter the 2019 season strong. After struggling to find vendors who wanted to renew their contracts with Hyattsville, Preston had to rethink the city’s approach. Tracey Nicholson, the city administrator, was the first to propose a marriage between the market and Summer Jam. She and Preston are hoping that the live music, flowing taps, and energy of the event will kick-start sales, incentivizing vendors to stick around for another season.
“As much creative planning and manpower and resources were put into this market, we still weren’t really seeing enough numbers in our participation to keep good vendors,” said Preston. “If you don’t have good vendors, then people don’t want to come, but if people don’t come, you can’t attract good vendors. So we made some changes to try to preserve the market, because we do see a need for it.”
The Hyattsville market is the oldest in the county, celebrating its 27th season of bringing fresh produce to residents, some of whom are food insecure. Among farmers market managers like Preston, the Hyattsville market has a reputation for innovation; it was the first in the country to partner with Share Our Strength, Cooking Matters, a D.C. nonprofit that educates low-income families about eating well on a budget. Last season, Preston was awarded $7,000 from Share Our Strength to distribute $10 vouchers to patrons of the market. Preston plans to implement the voucher program again this year, though it likely won’t start until July due to Share Our Strength’s 2018 grant distribution schedule. To receive a voucher, patrons of the market attend a 5-minute nutritional tour of the vendors during which they can learn what produce is in season and how it can be prepared.
As the Administrative Support and Wellness Programs coordinator for the city, Preston’s primary goal for the market is expanding access to healthy food.
“My goal and expectation for the market this year is that the sales will increase with Summer Jam and, most importantly, that it will reach a greater amount of people who are in need of fresh local produce that’s not too expensive,” said Preston.