Commitment to purchasing unsold product gave participating vedors comfort level in early going
Farmers markets are sprouting up all over the place, it seems, but that can be misleading. Given the time and financial commitment farmers must make to take their goods to these informal exchanges, there must be a certain level of confidence that the costs will be worth the payback. For this reason, those “ubiquitous” farmers markets are really only “ubiquitous” in affluent areas within easy reach of the country.
The Cleveland Clinic, located in the heart of Cleveland's urban east side, is neither in an affluent neighborhood or within easy reach of any growing fields. So when the Clinic wanted to initiate a farmers market on its campus, farmers were understandably leery about participating. That was until AVI Fresh, the management company that operates most of the medical facility's retail dining outlets, stepped in and offered to purchase any excess inventory the farmers couldn't sell during market hours.
“There was some concern whether a market could be supported,” says Alan Cichon, vice president for retail operations at the Clinic for AVI Fresh. “So we told them we would purchase the excess and use it in our operations if need be.”
The commitment amounted to purchasing $2,000-$3,000 worth of produce and goods the first week, at the end of July 2008. That dropped to around $1,500 by the second week and only around $800 by the third. Since then, the market has been operating with no help needed, though AVI Fresh Executive Chef Bob Dissell makes a point of walking the rows to see what looks good and making deals with some of the growers.
That's an extension of a procurement program at the Clinic that already places heavy emphasis on dealing with local suppliers. Indeed, up to 30 percent of the product served by AVI Fresh at the Clinic comes from sources in a 200-mile radius during the peak of the growing season. The total includes dairy and even beef.
The local commitment also extends to an innovative composting program that takes some 1,250 pounds of organic kitchen scraps a week from AVI Fresh's Clinic kitchens during the summer months to urban gardens run by Green Corps, a subsidiary of the Cleveland Botanical Gardens that employs area teens to grow fruits and vegetables on vacant city lots. Green Corps uses proceeds of the sale of its crops to fund its activities (the program has a regular stand at the Clinic Farmers Market).
“It closes the loop,” Cichon says. “The products we buy from them are grown in compost we generate.”
Meanwhile, the Cleveland Clinic Farmers Market has been a booming success. From an initial attendance of only a few hundred, it now attracts up to 3,000 shoppers each Wednesday from July through the early fall. Most of the shoppers are attached to the Clinic but also include visitors and area residents, some of whom receive vouchers from the Clinic to make purchases. “It's a way for the Clinic to promote wellness and healthful eating habits in the local community, since many people around here don't have a lot of money for buying fresh produce even if they could find it in area grocery stores,” Cichon says.