Cityseed Brings Connecticut's Small Farms to the City
Photos Courtesy of CitySeed
Despite the abundance of small farms in Connecticut, urban residents throughout the state can sometimes find it difficult to gain access to fresh and nutritious produce. Thankfully, for those in the city of New Haven, CitySeed provides an avenue for small farmers to bring their products to the urban market.
Since 2004, CitySeed has been dedicated to serving the New Haven community by providing them with fresh, healthy, 100% Connecticut-grown produce. This non-profit organization consists of a passionate group that is committed to the health and well-being of the people of New Haven. CitySeed is a major contributor to the food system of New Haven, serving residents, restaurants, students, and more. "Our mission is to engage the community in creating an equitable, local, and just food system," says Nicole Berube, Executive Director at CitySeed.
The primary tool through which CitySeed accomplishes this mission is their network of farmers markets. CitySeed runs four main markets – in Wooster Square, Edgewood Park, Fair Haven, and Downtown – for the duration of Connecticut's growing season. They also manage an off-season winter market, as well as a unique "Mobile Market," which is literally a farmers market on wheels, in partnership with Common Ground High School, which brings both fresh produce and educational programs into New Haven's urban neighborhoods.
But developing farmers markets and easing access to fresh produce is only one part of CitySeed's broad operation. Finding ways to mitigate the high cost of fresh food, which is often a barrier to urban families, was also paramount to the program. In response, CitySeed's Wooster Square market was the first in the state of Connecticut to accept EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly known as Food Stamps. "We have a mandate here to provide appropriate and affordable food access to residents," says Berube. Of New Haven's dense and diverse population of just over 130,000 people, 37,000 residents receive SNAP benefits, and because of the efforts of CitySeed, many have access to food that was not previously available.
Using a "high touch," hands-on approach to get the word out about their work, CitySeed has seen their success grow during their 12 years in operation. In 2004, CitySeed redeemed about $600 in SNAP/Food Stamp benefits. By comparison, in 2015 they redeemed over $15,000. While SNAP benefits comprise only a fraction of the overall sales for vendors and farmers, CitySeed has been able to significantly increase the number of people redeeming SNAP at markets by doubling its value and providing a dollar-for-dollar match of up to $10 per day in extra fruits and vegetables for each individual SNAP customer. For instance, if an individual were to redeem $10 worth of SNAP at a City-Seed farmers market, he or she would receive an additional voucher for $10 to use towards fruits or vegetables. CitySeed is committed to making sure that everybody's needs are met, and with this approach, they also help the farmers and vendors by giving them exposure to a new customer base. "Farm viability and food access are two sides of the same coin," says Berube.
The other side of CitySeed's mission revolves around operating as a resource for food and cooking education. Through food tastings, demonstrations, and cooking classes, they are able to share their knowledge and love of food with the whole community. Classes are held in CitySeed's certified commercial kitchen as well as senior centers around New Haven. Specialized classes expose people to foods they might not otherwise try, showcasing seasonally available produce and offering cooking demonstrations, as well as educating consumers about product prices. They also give residents an opportunity to learn about food growers in Connecticut.
The process of serving and educating the New Haven community brings with it lessons about that community, which help CitySeed to evolve as an organization. "[We're] open to being educated, ourselves," says Berube. "We don't presume to know everything about food or cooking or what's right or what's wrong or what's culturally appropriate." For CitySeed staff, openness to existing knowledge within the community, evolving with the community, and hopefully, being relevant to the community, is of the utmost importance. "The best part about the farmers markets or the Mobile Market is that people will start to share stories, because it's such an intimate exchange. At the Mobile Market level, we end up learning a lot more about the community. [It's] what the customers are telling us that matters the most."
CitySeed relies on support from members of the community who are able to contribute their time and resources, such as IKEA, which recently donated nearly an entire kitchen to CitySeed to help them hold cooking classes and to train cooking instructors. But the true strength of CitySeed lies with its volunteers and students. Students from the Green Jobs Corps (a program run by Common Ground High School that provides paid environmental jobs to students) and Youth@Work (a city sponsored program in New Haven that provides work for students and residents, age 14-21) play an important role in running the farmers markets and the Mobile Market, along with volunteers.
"[We have] an outstanding cohort of volunteers," says Berube. "The volunteers and interns that we receive are amazing individuals from all walks of life. They're dedicated, they love what we do, they love our farmers, they love our local vendors, and they love New Haven. Staff who come here do so for a thoughtful, conscientious, and intentional reason. I don't have to inspire them to do the work. And the students are a critical part of what we do. I don't think we would be able to do as much as we do without the student help that we receive from Youth@ Work and the Green Jobs Corps."
CitySeed's vital contribution to the New Haven food system succeeds thanks to how deeply woven it has become within the New Haven community, and it is as reliant on that community as it is supportive of it. For Berube, this is simply the nature of the organization they have built. "It's really dependent on the love and culture and knowledge that each community member wants to bring to it."
CitySeed operates five farmers markets in New Haven, including the Mobile Market, which operates five days a week, making two stops per day. Markets accept debit, credit, WIC (Women Infants Children), SNAP/Food Stamps, and Senior Market Coupons. SNAP users can double their dollars at all CitySeed farmers markets, including the Mobile and Winter Markets. For information about the Mobile Market locations, dates, and times, visit the website.
- Wooster Square, Sat 9am-1pm, Apr 2-Dec 17
- Edgewood Park, Sun 10am-1pm, May 8-Dec 18
- Downtown, Wed 11am-2pm, Jun 15-Oct 26
- Fair Haven, Thu 3pm-6pm, Jul 7-Oct 27