Food Access and the Public Market

October 9, 2014 12:05 PM

Tuesday's Council meeting brought out a number of issues related to food, a public market, and equity.
I think it is important to realize that creating food equity in Madison will not be solved by splitting the public market district. While Madison might support multiple markets in future years it is critical, for the sake of the market district and the success of the vendors,  that we develop a robust facility. In some instances equity is achieved by distributing a specific resource equally.  In other instances equity is achieved by focusing on different priorities.
This point is highlighted by the food deserts in our community which need attention, whether or not we build a public market. There are neighborhoods in Madison that need to attract more private commercial investment. When originally constructed areas like Allied Drive and Owl Creek were not designed to attract neighborhood retail, particularly food. When originally constructed, areas like Darbo-Worthington and Meadowood had viable food outlets which no longer exist. The changing demographics of the neighborhoods and the changing structure of grocery stores lead to the demise of what, at the time of construction, were considered large supermarkets with stores under 60,000 square feet. It should be noted that the closing of supermarkets was not limited to lower income areas, as experienced in the Westmoreland area with the shuttering of the market that once stood on Mineral Point near Speedway.
It is important as we continue the discussion to remember the nature of our objective. It is not to create public markets in multiple locations.  It is to create access to healthy, quality, reasonably priced food.  It is to ensure that public money, used to encourage private investment, job creation, and a robust economy is equitably spent.
That gets us to the critical discussion about the cost of construction and operation of a public market. An examination of public markets around the country demonstrates that most receive different forms of subsidization. The state of Massachusetts gave Boston a $4 million grant for its new market.  The states of New York and Connecticut are providing multiple regional grants to develop markets in their respective states. The new public market in Grand Rapids received significant foundation funding.  The point is that private and non-profit support is necessary for this project.
Public markets are like many other public facilities such as convention centers, performing arts centers, and recreational facilities in public parks. The private sector does not build them because they are not profitable as private business enterprises.
But that does not mean that they are not of economic value to a community. The positive externalities (which cannot be monetized by a for-profit business) include business creation, job creation, access to quality food, value added to place (property tax increases to surrounding property through new construction and appreciation), cultural benefits, and a strengthening of the local and regional food system.  As an example, our Economic Development staff benchmarked a recent analysis completed by another city to assess the potential economic impact of re-localizing food buying in Madison.  This analysis showed that if we shifted 20% of the City's food buying to local sources, we could create 1,800 new jobs in the food economy.  By creating a center-point for food retail, storage, processing, and distribution, the public market can move us in this direction.
The operation of the market is critical to matching the mission of the project with reality.  In order to meet our goals as a city, an operator must have a deep, meaningful commitment to equitable access for both vendors and customers alike.  The action last night by the City Council will ensure that the selection of a program and an operator will be done through an equity lens.
From an equity and economic development prospective, one of the things that great Public Markets do well is create food-based entrepreneurship opportunities for populations that have historically been denied chances to start businesses through traditional means.  Many people of color, women, and immigrants who might have the skills and entrepreneurial spirit to start great food businesses face financial and structural barriers due to current discrimination and legacies of discrimination.  Public Markets can lower these barriers. 
In 2003, the Ford Foundation commissioned a report titled, "Public Markets as a Vehicle for Social Integration and Upward Mobility."  Research conducted for this report found that 85% of surveyed small businesses using public markets as platforms for starting a business self-finance their start-up costs.  This suggests that public markets can support those who are unable to use traditional bank-based financing methods.   The report also surveyed public market vendors at several markets across the country and asked why they started a business at a public market.  The most common responses included "pay rent/bills," "pay for own education," "send kids to college," and "expand business."

The definition of the word "Equity" (created by Policylink and used in the City's Equity Tool) is as follows... "Just and fair inclusion into a society in which all, including all racial and ethnic groups, can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. Equity gives all people a just and fair shot in life despite historic patterns of racial and economic exclusion"

Food entrepreneurship has historically been a pathway to economic opportunity for families most often left behind by "historic patterns of economic exclusion".  When I read this definition of equity and think about how we can make meaningful progress toward giving more Madison residents opportunities to "participate, prosper, and reach their full potential." I think the Public Market could be one of our most powerful tools.
Our choice is not between whether to provide access to healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate food for all or to support a public market district.  Rather, our duty is to ensure that the public market district is a welcoming, affordable, and accessible place for all Madisonians while we simultaneously address food access issues in all neighborhoods.  A public market district cannot do both, but the City of Madison, along with our partners, can.

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