Local Women Start a Revolution in … Grocery Shopping? The Story of the Oakmont Farmers Market, Education, and Social Change in Bryn Mawr’s Backyard / by Kaley Carpenter

Posted March 29th, 2010 at 12:39 pm.

In 2006, three women who lived in Havertown, a small community just south of Bryn Mawr, came together and unintentionally started a revolution. They included a stay-at-home mother, a small business owner, and an anthropology graduate student finishing her doctorate at nearby University of Pennsylvania (Penn). Having met each other through volunteer work, they soon realized that they shared two passions: improving the quality of their local neighborhood and business district as well as sustainable, healthy eating. After a few phone calls to their local township officials and to farmers active in Philadelphia’s food markets, they realized that the deceptively simple question, “Could a farmers market happen in Havertown?” was a battle cry that challenged the way people thought about eating, shopping, and community service. I know this from personal experience: As a current volunteer who became involved with the Oakmont Farmers Market (OFM) in 2007 after I moved to the area from New Jersey, I have seen the travails of grassroots organizing for grass-fed beef and other local food options. On the other hand, after only three years in existence and an unprecedented Best of the Main Line 2009 award for “Fresh Fruits and Veggies” adding to their reputation, the OFM seems to have won the day against skeptics. It has done so in part by transforming itself into an independent nonprofit organization and by articulating a clear mission to educate people of all ages and income levels about sustainable eating and farming practices.

This story of local change began with Janet Chrzan, who now teaches nutritional and medical anthropology at her alma mater of Penn. Chrzan was an avid shopper at the Clark Park Farmers Market, which had begun under the auspices of The Food Trust, a nonprofit founded in 1992 to ensure access to affordable, nutritious food for all Philadelphians. It was there that Chrzan met Lisa Kerschner, owner of North Star Orchards. Kerschner not only grew tasty vegetables and exotic varieties of rare apples and Asian pears on her Cochranville, Pa., farm, but she also educated the public about her vocation by writing about her farming experiences in such publications as Newsweek (see the “My Turn” column at http://www.newsweek.com/id/132862). When Kerschner asked Chrzan, “Why isn’t there a farmers market where you live in Havertown?” Chrzan enlisted her help in finding other local producers who would be willing to sell their crops directly to customers in the suburbs off the Main Line.

With support from neighbors, township officials and civic organizations, and Julie Schultz (a busy mother of two) and Lauren Feldman (an entrepreneur trained in Hollywood’s entertainment industry), this tiny team of residents convinced township officials to approve the incorporation of the OFM and to let it run on Wednesday afternoons in the Havertown municipal parking lot at the intersection of Eagle and Darby Roads. They then went door to door telling local businesses about the market, asking them to hang posters in their shop windows that encouraged passers-by to “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” or to display colorful postcards showing the cornucopia of crops grown in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Newly recruited volunteers like myself handed out flyers at local community events like Narberth’s Earth Day and Haverford Township’s Heritage Festival. We also received help with the initial infrastructure of the market from Farm To City, a Philadelphia business dedicated to helping rural food producers connect with urban eaters.

When opening day arrived in May 2007, the OFM boasted ten different vendors who sold locally-produced flowers, eggs, cheeses, breads, bison, lip balms, and dog treats in addition to the expected array of fresh fruits and vegetables. Township and state politicians were there to help with the ribbon cutting. Shoppers came from as far away as Phoenixville and Center City with reusable canvas bags. By the end of that first summer, the market had almost 1,000 names on an e-mail list and a 1,500-person petition to township commissioners asking them to bring the market back the following spring. “In many ways, the market is a logical extension of what makes a place like Havertown unique,” reflects Chrzan. “People born and raised here stay here because they know the local business owners as their neighbors. Residents grow up fixing each other’s cars, mowing each other’s lawns, and preparing their favorite meals. Now they can also know the names of the men and women who grow the food served at mealtime.”

Today in 2010, the impact of the OFM is on display both inside and outside Havertown. Local business owners who saw their foot traffic and sales spike on Wednesdays quickly established an annual “Oakmont Village Fall Festival” to coincide with the market’s seasonal finale the day before Thanksgiving to boost holiday business. Their leadership helped forge not only a partnership with the farmers market but also the beginning of a new economic development task force. Residents at Haverford Township revitalization meetings credited this new activity with increasing home property values during the middle of the real estate crash. And new restaurants like Kaya’s Fusion Cuisine, opening in what had once been the original Carmine’s, soon partnered with the OFM to create seasonal menus with produce, meat, and cheese sourced directly from the farmers themselves. Mike and Jessica Hawthorne, co-owners of Kaya’s and longtime Havertown residents, have since sponsored three “Locavore” Harvest Dinners, while winning their own Best of the Main Line award for their delectable desserts. Suddenly, the once-sleepy and historically working-class town that had long been looked down upon as being “off the Main Line” was attracting foodies from Philadelphia. Nearby municipalities took notice and began their own farmers market efforts. It is perhaps not a coincidence that by the summer of 2009, markets were launched or in the planning stages in Bryn Mawr, Ardmore, and Bala Cynwyd.

Yet the founders of the OFM realized that, despite achieving their initial goals of providing sustainable local food alternatives to the community and helping to revitalize Havertown’s business district, their work had just begun. For starters, their efforts remained misunderstood by many. Some (misinformed) residents complained that the market did not pay rent for its use of the township’s parking lot and was driving other small grocery stores out of business. Such rumors persisted despite the fact that institutions like Young’s Produce (just down Eagle Road from the market’s
weekly home) actually saw an increase in customers when shoppers stopped in to finish off their grocery lists by purchasing milk and other products not available at the market itself. Suspicion toward the market was also born innocently enough out of a lack of knowledge: Many locals had simply never heard of or seen a farmers market and did not understand how it worked. Thus, Chrzan and a fresh cadre of volunteers sought to expand the mission of the OFM to include education – a mission that today distinguishes it from all the other markets in the area.

In order to meet this local educational need, the OFM first became a 501(c)3 entity, complete with a board of trustees who accepted the responsibility of oversight that Farm to City had rendered during the OFM’s first two years. Unlike other markets that are still run as part of this Philadelphia business, the OFM is completely volunteer-driven; all monies taken in through farmers’ dues and fundraising go right back out to the community. With its new nonprofit status, the OFM has been able to work with other civic institutions like the Haverford Township Free Library, with which it launched a children’s outreach this past summer. The Fruit and Veggie Challenge, which was one of the programs conducted at the market, encouraged youth of all ages to try new fresh produce. It was a hit with over a hundred families participating. In the meantime, the market’s weekly e-mail newsletter and blog entries invited the public to screenings of the recent film Food, Inc. and posted news articles explaining the differences between organic and conventional farms.

As the OFM enters its fourth season after changing the culture and economics of the local community, it seeks to continue its nonprofit and educational mission. It has also added new vendors, including a pie maker and specialty cheese producers. So far it has weathered the downturn in the economy and increasing competition from other markets. If consumers continue to value knowing the names of the people who grow their food and where it came from, the “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” revolution will continue both in Havertown and beyond. Yet even the OFM’s short history is a testament to the ability of women from different walks and in various stages of life to work together to galvanize economic and social change in their community.

Kaley Carpenter serves as a lecturer in Bryn Mawr College’s Emily Balch Seminar Program and as an adjunct professor in both the History Department and the Center for Liberal Education at Villanova University, when she’s not recruiting and training volunteers for the Haverford Township Farmers Market Association. Her interests include world history, American religious history, visual and material culture, agrarianism, and media ecology. For more information about the Oakmont Farmers Market, please visit http://www.oakmontfarmersmarket.org.

Filed under: Issue 4 by Julie Zaebst

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