A local 12-year-old has built an oasis in the fresh-food desert on Weaver Dairy Road.
Marin Lissy’s first farmers market at Cedar Falls Park on July 16 attracted nearly 300 customers with organic tomatoes, spray-free apples and other vegetables. It featured three independent farmers and a cooperative stall selling vegetables from multiple Chapel Hill Farmer’s Market vendors.
The pilot pop-up market, if successful, could grow in the future, said Lissy, the Chapel Hill seventh-grader behind Produce for Parks, now operating from 4 to 6 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 13.
The idea took root a little over a year ago when Lissy entered the inaugural Little Leagues essay contest sponsored by the Junior League of Durham and Orange Counties. The essay question asked how she would increase access to healthy food in her community.
The area around Cedar Falls Park is a food desert, because the nearest store is more than a mile away, Lissy said. The idea of a fresh food market came to her while watching the snow cone truck that visits the park, she said.
“I’m from Seattle, so I grew up going to Pike’s Place Market, and I think because of that, I’ve just had a close connection to fresh food and I really appreciate it,” she said. “The people that I’ve always known and my parents, especially my mother, have always been real big advocates of things like that. They want to provide fresh produce and help people get that.”
The essay won her a $100 grant to promote the market and publish a book – a compilation of recipes from neighbors, classmates and friends – to raise money for Farmer Foodshare. The organization connects local farmers and produce with people in need and the community groups that serve them.
Junior League member Kathleen Harrell said they were really impressed with Lissy’s ideas. When she submitted a business plan, they gave her another $100 for marketing. They never expected her to accomplish so much, Harrell said, but it’s been great to see the idea grow.
Building a network of farmers wasn’t the only challenge, Lissy said.
“Since you’re not an adult, people won’t necessarily take you seriously,” she said. “Until today, two of my vendors did not know that I was 12 years old.”
That didn’t bother farmer Anna Tommerdahl, who hosted Lissy at Jimmy Acres Farm, located in Semora near Hyco Lake. They also sell produce at a Bowden Road farm stand south of Carrboro, she said.
“I was impressed with how much she had done already to organize everything, her plans for all the marketing and everything,” Tommerdahl said. “It sounded like a great opportunity for me to just show up with my vegetables.”
Marin also has inspired her peers. Victoria Schmidt, also 12, said she offered to help with a market newsletter or the website.
“I’m a locavore, so I only eat local foods,” Schmidt said. “It’s really nice to have something here and to be supporting local produce because that’s kind of what I’m all about.”
The town is donating the market space now, but Lissy could ask farmers to chip in next year to pay the lease. Seeing customers build healthy relationships with local food and farmers is important, because only 2 percent of the population works in agriculture, she said.
“Back a while ago … everybody was farming because you didn’t have grocery stores or supermarkets to go to; you were growing and surviving off your own food,” Lissy said. “So times have definitely changed, and we need to learn how we can support this growing local food system.”