Farm stands with a purpose grow throughout Portland
PORTLAND — Like fruit on a well-tended vine, farm stands meant to increase access to healthy food in the hearts of Portland neighborhoods are sprouting this week across the city.
The five stands, organized and operated by the food-focused nonprofit Cultivating Community, will each open one day a week through Oct. 25 in the Bayside, East Bayside, Parkside, Riverton, and West End neighborhoods.
While the program has run for several summers, some of this year's farm stand locations are new. The Riverton and West End locations replace stands located last year near Local 188 on Congress Street and the Shaw's supermarket in North Deering's Northgate Plaza.
Those locations didn't fare as well as the others last year, Stephanie Aquilina of Cultivating Community, said. The Congress Street stand seemed too much like "just another business on Congress Street," she said, while the one at Shaws "we thought would be an instant hit, because people were already planning to buy food."
It wasn't. "It was counter-intuitive, but it was not in a community," Aquilina said.
With the new locations – one deeper in the West End neighborhood, at the corner of Pine and Brackett Streets, the other at the well-used Riverton Community Center – the program looks to grow, Aquilina said.
"Hopefully (we) have been a bit more strategic about our placement ... and predicting foot traffic," she said.
The farm stand model is "taking the idea of one farmers market and spreading it around different neighborhoods and different days, so that more people can take advantage of it," Aquilina said.
Each features fresh fruit and organic vegetables grown in Maine by immigrant farmers participants in Cultivating Community's New American Sustainable Agriculture Project.
"We don't see them as being in competition" with farmers markets, "because really our goal is to increase healthy food in the city," Aquilina said. "We really see it as ... every farm stand and every farmers market is an extension of this healthy food conversation that we 're having."
Unlike the larger weekly outdoor markets at Deering Oaks Park and Monument Square, which include dozens of vendors under the umbrella of the Portland Farmers Market Association, the farm stands each feature just one or two farmers selling their produce with support from the nonprofit.
The stands serve several purposes as a development tool, Aquilina said. One is to penetrate areas of the city where fresh, healthy food is hard to find.
"It definitely creates accessibility," said Jason Bradley, the Riverton Community Center leader. Residents of that neighborhood, on outer Forest Avenue, no longer have to make the trek to Deering Oaks for the Saturday farmers market, he said.
Like the bigger markets, the farm stands accept not just cash, credit and debit cards, but also SNAP and WIC benefits, two federal programs that help low-income families, individuals and mothers of young children buy food.
Through a grant, Cultivating Communities this summer will double the amount that customers spend using SNAP or WIC benefits, increasing the amount of fresh food those customers can afford. They ran a similar program at the city's winter farmers market earlier this year.
The farm stands also help develop the business skills of the farmers involved. Most are Somali immigrants living and working in Lewiston, though a few are Sudanese, Mexican or Guatemalan, said Hussein Muktar, a now independent Somali farmer who sells produce at Kennebunk's farmers market and works as a translator for Cultivating Community.
"We send incubator farmers to (the farm stands to) learn how to sell their produce, how to market themselves," Muktar said last week. "When we come back, we want to do the same thing those guys are doing."
The farm stands allow the farmers the opportunity to practice their English-language skills in a real-life setting – most have been taking ESL classes since they arrived in America as recently as a year or two ago – and learn about American culture and customer service expectations.
As they gain experience and skills, participants become more independent, Muktar said, often graduating to the larger farmers markets and greater opportunities.