How to Increase Inclusivity & Diversity at Your Farmers Market

How can the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market enhance its culture of inclusivity as well as its vendor and visitor diversity?

The Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market (BCFM) solicited the support of students and experts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to address this question and determine off-season and in-season best practices.

After 46 seasons, the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market (BCFM) has become an iconic part of Bloomington, Indiana – a largely rural area with about 35,000 year-round residents and 45,000 students attending Indiana University. In recent years it has become an increasingly important goal for the market to strengthen its culture of and reputation for inclusivity.

Diversity Versus Inclusion

It’s important the note that the terms ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ often come hand in hand, but there is a distinction to be made regarding their definitions and relationship.

Diversity revolves around the demographic composition of a workforce. When putting together a diverse staff team, it may be important to note the gender, race/ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation breakdown of existing or prospective employees.

Inclusion, on the other hand, revolves around organizational culture, a culture which either enables or inhibits diversity to be sustained (Spark, 2019).

Although an organization may try to increase the diversity of its team by assessing current employee demographics and then engaging in targeted hiring practices, the resulting diversity will not be sustainable if there is not a supportive culture of inclusion.

Lack of Diversity and Inclusivity in Farmers Markets

Historically markets incorporated new immigrants to the country (Morales 2000), provided entreprenuerial opportunities, and helped produce food security. Recent history celebrates the variety of produce and products at a market, not so much the diversity of producers or visitors. There are fewer farmers markets in demographically and socioeconomically diverse areas and even when markets are located in areas geographically closer to racially/ethnically and socioeconomically diverse populations, there are still barriers to participation by these groups.

In a 2016 systematic review of available research on the matter, key barriers to farmers market use by lower-income populations included:

  • Perceptions that food assistance benefits were not accepted
  • Belief that markets had a limited variety of food
  • Lack of access to transportation
  • Lack of racial/ethnic diversity in the market space and mismatches between markets and personal lifestyles (Freedman, et al, 2016).

Off-Season Best Practices

These steps detailed below can be implemented during the market’s off-season to set the market up for success.

  • Hire staff who reflect the diversity the market wishes to attract in its vendors and visitors

A diverse staff team can bring a diverse range of skills, experiences, and ideas to a workplace. In hiring an increasingly diverse set of employees, an organization can benefit from the innovation that comes from the infusion of new and divergent perspectives and backgrounds. Additionally, diversity in an organization can breed diversity in both the future members of the staff team as well as in patrons of the organization.

  • Encourage or mandate additional staff training

Providing specific educational and training opportunities to employees of a farmers market is an important component of creating an inclusive culture.

First, cultural sensitivity training should be provided as it aims to reinforce the idea that each visitor and vendor of the market will bring different ways of communicating, different expectations, and different backgrounds/abilities. As defined by Penn State Extension, cultural sensitivity is “a set of skills that enables us to learn about and understand people who are different from ourselves, thereby becoming better able to serve them within their own communities” (Fonseca Estrada, 2015.) Creating an inclusive market culture will inherently require this trust, openness, and mutual respect.

Second, conflict resolution training would also go a long way toward facilitating an inclusive environment for all market stakeholders. Conflicts are inevitable in a market setting, ranging from vendor-customer price disputes to customer-customer miscommunications to vendor-staff policy disagreements and more. If handled effectively, though, conflict can ultimately lead to increased trust, productivity, and group unity (Katz & McNulty, 1994).

  • Pay attention to language used and the brand identity it creates

An important but often overlooked consideration in creating an inclusive environment is how the market is promoted and how its mission and offerings are communicated. A market’s brand identity gets communicated to potential vendors and visitors both explicitly through promotional avenues (such as advertisements and a market’s website or social media channels) and implicitly through product offerings and price points. Wholesome Wave’s National Nutrition Incentive Network echoed and advised, “The language you use can have a profound effect on how people feel, even if subconsciously. (National Nutrition Incentive Network, 2016). Small changes to language used on signage around the market, for example, can have amplified effects on the inclusive culture the market creates. For instance, rather than hanging a sign that says ‘We accept Market Bucks’, vendors could be encouraged to write ‘We gladly accept Market Bucks’ or ‘We welcome Market Bucks vouchers’ (National Nutrition Incentive Network, 2016). The subtle difference in tone that these language choices convey contribute to the overall inclusive feel of a market.

More broadly, where a market chooses to share information can dramatically influence who is reached and then convinced to attend or sell at the market. In addition to physical signage and the most traditional ‘word-of-mouth’ promotion, markets can utilize press releases, radio or television advertisements, local news or public access television programming, and various internet channels. For example, the Crossroads Farmers Market in Hyattsville, Maryland chose to promote their market on El Zol, the most popular radio station among Latinos in the area (Project for Public Spaces, 2008).

  • Emphasize key community partnerships

Seeing as farmers markets often play the role of community gathering places or community hubs, it is critical that markets position themselves to be part of the community just as a farmers market relies on support from the surrounding community to be successful and to develop a culture of inclusivity.

The National Nutrition Incentive Network, for example, offers the following strategy, “Form partnerships with community-based organizations to build ties to the neighborhoods your market serves. In addition to the large groups that serve the community (who may be easiest to reach), seek out the smaller organizations who may have deeper ties to residents” (National Nutrition Incentive Network, 2016).

Another strategy recommended by the Project for Public Spaces included forming relationships with community organizations which could serve targeted program development initiatives. For example, a market striving to influence the health outcomes of the community might aim to partner with organizations that focus on nutrition education or childhood obesity.

Finally, a market can strategically partner with community organizations based on their ability to advertise to or reach sub-populations which are not aware of or ordinarily do not attend the market. As an example, the Toledo Farmers Market in Ohio identified food stamp recipients as a sub-population which was under-represented at the market. To address this under-representation, market staff forged advertising relationships with community entities that were known to serve residents living in public housing developments in the area and could, therefore, more readily reach the targeted sub-population and encourage their attendance at the farmers market (Project for Public Spaces, 2008).

Whatever the strategy be, it is critical that a market build strong relationships with community organizations which more readily reach and comprehensively represent the needs and interests of the diverse populations it hopes to attract.

  • Offer additional support for under-resourced vendors

Just as a market might implement training opportunities for its staff, it may also consider offering similar professional development opportunities to its vendors. These training opportunities can attract farmers and growers who are struggling financially, or newer to the area or industry. For instance, Webb City Farmers Market in Missouri implemented a series of training workshops that, utilizing a translator to lessen communication barriers, targeted the market’s Hmong vendors and helped to increase their sales in the following year by as much as 700 percent (Project for Public Spaces, 2008).

Likewise, enabling vendors to accept food security benefits, and doubling those benefits, as many markets do, also increases vendor sales. Brown Deer WI saw a 500 percent increase, year over year, in their program that connected underserved population to the market.

Farmers markets can also offer other forms of assistance to under-resourced current or prospective vendors. Markets should consider flexible policies for the fees that vendors pay to participate in the market. In allowing for case-by-case adjustments or payment schedules, vendors can participate who might otherwise be categorically excluded on the basis of cost. For markets located in higher-income areas in particular, this practice may improve the market’s potential for diversity by enticing vendors from lower-income areas to participate.

In-Season Best Practices

Once a market has made strides toward building inclusivity in the off-season, there are additional ways to solidify these actions while the market is in full swing. The steps outlined below can reinforce the market’s off-season practices and set the market up for a longer-term, sustainable culture of inclusivity.

  • Collect comprehensive vendor and visitor data

A farmers market, as any business, must follow logical, methodical steps to understand a problem prior to determining the most appropriate solution(s). It is important that the market first seeks to understand the demographic breakdown of its vendors and visitors. A farmers market cannot improve a lack of diversity or inclusivity if it does not know in detail who is coming to or selling at its market, where they are coming from, and what brings them there.

For some markets, it may make sense to employ a data collection toolkit to efficiently assist in the compilation and analysis of data collected. For example, the Farm 2 Facts toolkit can empower markets to make more informed decisions and improve communication with stakeholders and potential funding sources. Our toolkit can facilitate the tracking, estimating, and interpreting of metrics that provide insight into whether a market is reaching households in certain geographic areas, catering to low-income households that benefit from public assistance programs, and attracting vendors who are newer to the industry – all facets of a market’s inclusivity.

  • Leverage the off-season groundwork

The extensive off-season efforts to create an inclusive market culture can be reinforced through various in-season choices. First, after training market staff in cultural sensitivity, developing partnerships with community-based organizations, and offering support to new vendors, a market can put these efforts to use through culturally relevant cooking demonstrations during the market’s peak operating hours. These cooking demonstrations can show how to enjoy foods from various cultural traditions as well as highlight ways to feed a family on a budget (National Nutrition Incentive Network, 2016).

Second, markets can benefit from inviting significant community organizations to share information at or host events during the market. This can include collaborating with the local SNAP agency to share information on eligibility and applying for food assistance support, or hosting events, festivals, or performances from entertainers that celebrate the diversity of the surrounding community (National Nutrition Incentive Network, 2016). A market can achieve a more inclusive environment it sets in promotional materials through employing the lessons learned during off-season staff training opportunities and mobilizing community partnerships.

Lessons Learned

Applicable to markets of all shapes and sizes, Table 1 below compiles the best practices discussed and identified through our review of existing literature, intentional steps which we believe can help markets cultivate an underlying culture of inclusivity and, subsequently, allow for the fostering of sustainable vendor and visitor diversity.

Off-Season Best Practices In-Season Best Practices
  • Hire staff who reflect the diversity the market wishes to attract in its vendors and visitors
  • Encourage or mandate additional staff training
  • Pay attention to language used and the brand identity it creates
  • Emphasize key community partnerships
  • Offer additional support for under-resourced vendors
  • Collect comprehensive vendor and visitor data
  • Leverage the off-season groundwork

Table 1

 The above Best Practices should be interpreted as ongoing processes rather than one-time tasks. To truly build and sustain an inclusive culture which results in heightened diversity of vendors and visitors, a market must regularly re-evaluate its perception, participation, and progress.

We look forward to checking back in on the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market to see how these practices have, in time, helped to position their market as a regional leader in openness and diversity. Further, it is our hope that other markets across the country can benefit from our synthesis and categorization of broad best practices related to inclusivity and diversity.