First the downtown Walgreens closed in 2014. Then, both of Kokomo’s Marsh stores shut their doors last year. With options for groceries diminishing, one community organization is working to provide consistent access to fresh food.
When Adrienne Akers became manager at the Kokomo Downtown Farmers' Market nearly five years ago, she was approached by Susan Alexander, the manager of the Greater Kokomo Downtown Association and a farmers’ market board member.
“For a while now, we’ve not had a fresh food option, grocery downtown,” Alexander said. “I’m not the only one that has identified that this is a need. We all understand that people need access to fresh food and it needs to be convenient for folks.”
Alexander said it made sense to look into and start considering the farmers’ market as a way to fill that need downtown.
“Over time, as I’ve listened to the challenges of our local farmers, the more I understand the challenges of running a farmers market and the need that there is for consistent access to the food that farmers provide. I jumped on board pretty quickly with Susan,” Akers said.
Defining the problem was easy. Solving that problem has proved to be a bit more challenging.
The organization started a winter market, and even extended its seasons, but the demand continued, Alexander said.
“Last year we really began to focus on the issue even more, and we are hearing more and more from the community,” Akers said.
Over the holidays, Jitterbug — a store in Kokomo’s downtown square — announced the opening of a deli. People expressed a lot of excitement about the new deli on social media, which led the farmers’ market to share the news of a “Pop Up Market” coming downtown in both February and March this year.
The Pop Up Market idea became a way to figure out the “nuts and bolts” of how to make a farmers’ market-supported grocery work, and see if the public would support the concept, Akers said.
“We got some really great answers and some really great feedback,” Akers said.
Alexander also attended the Pop Up Market in February and heard a great response from customers.
“I just saw relief on people’s faces that we were there and they were able to access this even in the winter,” she said.
Although the process has been a bit slow going, Alexander said the board is now looking into location and grant possibilities for such an undertaking.
“What we are trying to do now is fill in the gaps. We have a great crew — we have amazing vendors doing amazing things and constantly challenging themselves to add to their products and make an even more rich market experience,” Akers said.
But there are still some logistics to figure out before the idea can become more concrete, like when and how to stock the fresh food, who would work at the grocery and how to make sure it will have quality food throughout the year and not just the summer months. Akers said they have been discussing some of these issues, such as how to provide dairy products continuously.
“It’s very hard to produce milk for sale. That’s really, really tricky and expensive to get a dairy up off the ground,” Akers said. “We’ve tried. We worked hard with one of our vendors, Dairy Dream, to see if there was a way we could assist her or help her get grants or get her hooked up with somebody that would be willing to assist her — but it is just cost prohibitive. Cheeses are also really difficult. There are just some things that we don’t have.”
Michelle Martin, co-owner of Thistle Rock Farm with Steve Daily and long-time farmers’ market vendor, said despite the logistical issues, she is hopeful this idea will come to fruition for both the community and farmers that support it.
“Any farmer that grows for market will tell you that we need income year-round,” she said. “Logistically, it’s a lot of work, especially for us because I’m planning to open my own farm stand this spring. So I’ll be supplying my farm stand, the farmers’ market on Saturday and then a year-round market. It gets a little crazy, but it’s worth it for the community and the vendors.”
Martin continued to say that she thinks this is the start to something even bigger for the community that can help people of all walks of life have accesses to fresh food, no matter their income or abilities.
While most vendors are generally excited about the possibility, there are others that are a little bit more cautious and questioning if it really is the best thing for the market as a whole.
“We have some people who are wary because they have been in different kinds of co-op situations that did not work out for them and they are very concerned that that could happen,” Akers said. “They love our market — it means a lot to them. The people that come and visit them mean a lot to them. The boost that it gives to their financial situation is important to them.”
Heather Dame-Keel, owner of Lucky Lemon Bakery, said that while she is excited for this opportunity for the community, she is a little bit concerned about the potential of not having those face-to-face interactions with her customers like she does at the traditional Saturday market.
“Everything I do is vegan, so it’s kind of one of those things where I have to talk to people to tell them what the difference in my product is,” Dame-Keel said. “While I think it’s great that we would have more options, it’s hard I think for us to communicate with our customers what the difference in our products are compared to something else.”
Dame-Keel, a mother of two, also said a full-time store would make it more difficult for smaller vendors, who do not have time to supply more products.
Akers said she hears those concerns.
“I tell them all the time that ‘We won’t do anything unless you are comfortable with it — you are our market,’” Akers continued. “We can’t just go out on the limb and drive our most important people away.
“From my point of view, I want to provide consistent access to our community, make sure every single person in our community is able to get fresh, whole foods. The second part of that is making sure that my vendors have a viable, sustainable avenue to sell their products. They work hard. They work all sorts of hours — they are out in the freezing cold and hot sun and pouring rain — and I know they put their heart and soul into what they do.”
However, the possibility of a local downtown grocery will never happen unless the community as a whole gets behind the idea, Akers said. That’s why she and the rest of the board needs to continue to see that demand and get feedback from people.
“I think it’s super easy to get on Facebook and say ‘Oh yeah I want this and this is a great idea’ and support with words, but we just want to make sure that the support with dollars, attendance and participation is also there,” Akers said. “If you want this, if this is something that you think Kokomo needs, then you have to support it. You have to come to the Pop Up Market — you have to come prepared to support through your dollars. You have to be engaged with us.”