I worked with two organizations at Eastern Market in Detroit last summer: Farm Stand and Grow Eastern Market. My experience gave me insight on the food system and some of the challenges that exist in supplying fresh produce. It also reinforced my interest in working toward food sustainability.
Many Detroit residents lack easy access to fresh produce. Farm Stand focuses on improving accessibility by setting up fresh produce stands at 16 locations in the greater Detroit area. Working with Farm Stand gave me a great chance to observe firsthand people’s shopping behavior in different communities in Detroit, as well as the opportunity to see how we can influence their behavior in consuming fresh food more frequently.
I observed and interacted with the customers at all my stands. Although I made a lot of friends, I found it rather hard to influence individual behaviors. Even when people are just browsing, they still have preferences—what food they are used to. Some will be willing to try different varieties of produce, but most will stay away from the things they are not interested in, no matter how healthy they are. Also, the people who shop at the stands are already in the habit of buying fresh produce at the supermarket. Those who are more used to eating out or buying frozen food are not doing a lot of shopping at farm stands.
We tried to encourage people to buy more fresh produce, and a rough estimate of our success is that we influenced only 10% of the farm stands’ customers. Most of the customers find it convenient to buy produce at their office (some of the stands were set up at workplaces), so they can return home to cook dinner directly afterward without a grocery run. Although the question of how we can reach people who don’t come to our stands still remains, we did see people returning every week and sometimes bringing their friends along.
Grow Eastern Market
The goal of Grow Eastern Market is to connect farms and institutional buyers, such as restaurants, chefs and grocery stores. I helped Grow Eastern Market get started over the summer. We reached out to farms that were interested in participating and restaurants engaged in the local food scene. We started out by building a website with farm descriptions and a produce cart, but we gradually realized that, because we were targeting chefs and buyers, we would need to redesign our selling method, so that it would be geared more toward what they prefer. We developed a produce list in the end, enabling the buyers to browse all our produce with a glance and to send us their orders by replying with an Excel sheet.
With both organizations, I learned a lot about the challenges in the food system. As I interacted with farmers, consumers and institutional buyers, I saw that all three stakeholders face certain problems. If we can design a better food system to fulfill their demands, we may create a system that is more sustainable for the community.