Making Strides

Making Strides

A lot has changed since I last sat down to write about my experience as a VISTA with the Hub City Farmer’s Market. I think the first two months have shown me how dynamic this job can be, and I’ve had a glimpse of the many faces of a developing community. Through people I’ve met from the farmer’s market, other nonprofits, and in my day to day life as a new community member, it is clear that different interests are competing for a stake in Spartanburg’s future.

Whether they seek progress or consistency, one thing is clear: all identify Spartanburg as a growing community, and are working to adapt to these changes in their own way. Some can be found clinging to established practices, uncomfortable with change, trying to hold on to the Spartanburg that they are familiar with and could thrive in. They fear being edged out by the more youthful, progressive entrepreneurs.

Such groups are part of the movement to make Spartanburg a destination for young professionals and graduates from the seven local universities and colleges. While attending a presentation by the “One Spartanburg” initiative with my VISTA cohort, one of the primary topics was retention of college graduates, and attracting young talent from outside of Spartanburg. This initiative I feel paints an accurate picture of the road ahead for Spartanburg as it continues to develop, based on extensive research.

One of the biggest challenges in my opinion, and that of One Spartanburg, is closing the apparently widening education gap. Research shows that the older generation has a higher rate of college graduates than my generation, indicating that growth may not be sustainable. Various educational programs are being proposed at the district’s level, as well as initiatives to encourage graduates from the 7 local higher-ed institutions to grow their roots here in Spartanburg. These two models exemplify both bottom-up and top-down approaches to closing the education gap and attracting young talent, as young professionals who stay in the area can invest in the community, and the district high schools can churn out college-ready students to help sustain local growth.

In order to further address the growing education gap, I would like to offer an outsider’s perspective on the district system in Spartanburg county. In my first two months here I have observed a potentially inequitable system, where the differences between schools in neighboring districts can be striking. This is the only thing I want to say about the education system, because I am neither an education professional, nor am I affiliated with the schools in any way. I would urge authorities to consider uniting the various districts under one county system. This may help close the gaps between schools and create a more equitable system. I know that this system existed in the past.

So, in moving Spartanburg forward, it will be important to look to the past. The farmer’s market, through this critical time in the development in Spartanburg, is simultaneously tied to business development, education, and talent retention moving the community forward, but it should also represent the views that are at stake in the Northside community.

With poverty and chronic homelessness plaguing some of the community members, the farmer’s market has the resources to help pull them out of these situations, weaving them into the framework of a growing Spartanburg. With the double SNAP program, community garden, and urban farm at their disposal, residents of the Northside have the means to improve their health, beautify their community, and learn about sustainable practices in gardening. The challenge comes with making these resources known, and welcoming in the residents to the market. It is there for them, after all.

One of the tasks I have been interested in of late is a continuation of the survey series rolled out in my second week on staff, attempting to gather demographic data from customers at the farmer’s market. In order to reach different populations it was clear that HCFM should, instead of surveying from within, look to neighboring markets and food sellers to see where they have been successful.

I visited the Spartanburg Flea Market, just to look around before I proposed a survey, and it was an eye opening experience. The variety of products far surpassed those available at HCFM, just a few miles down the road. Beside produce you could find fishing rods, prepared foods, cleaning products, and clothing. I likened it to an outdoor Wal Mart, where customers could find and haggle for almost anything you could think of (even live chickens, bootlegged CD’s and DVD’s).

The advantages of this sort of market include the variety, price, and quantity of the goods they have to offer, but has shortcomings arise in the quality of the goods. Often used, and rarely handcrafted, the products offered at the flea market differ tremendously from those available at HCFM, especially when considering the origin of some products

I could see how the flea market is attractive to international populations, because the products they had to offer certainly weren’t local. With exotic fruits and vegetables unlikely to be grown in southeastern United States climate, the range of choices give the flea market an upper hand in this sense.

Hopefully the data I plan to collect will shed some light on what HCFM can do to make the market more accessible to different populations, while being able to maintain the requirement that the products be locally sourced.

Along with that, I am trying to establish a solid network of volunteers, and am looking for a few committed volunteers to help out weekly with our mobile market and on the urban farm. Consistent volunteers are a luxury for nonprofits, as I have come to find out. But any help we can get is certainly welcome!

As I take on these tasks, I find my work becoming more challenging, as I knew it would after the honeymoon phase came to an end. HCFM is a valuable community resource, so it is my hope that our services become more known among the people that the market intends to reach. If you would like to be a part of this, please take this short volunteer survey!

Many thanks.

-Cooper Gerus