First seen in Politico Magazine / photo MARTA
tlanta is known for transportation snarls that can make people’s blood pressure soar. But city officials have come up with a way to use the city’s transit system to solve a health problem.
Since 2015, Atlanta commuters using some of the city’s metro stations have been able to buy fresh produce at pop-up markets inside or just outside the station. The program, Fresh MARTA Market, is the city’s solution to a persistent food-access problem in Atlanta’s poorer communities where fresh food is often scarce and the incidence of diet-related illnesses is high. One in 3 adults in Atlanta are obese and three-quarters do not eat the recommended daily servings of vegetable or fruit, according to a 2017 study by the Food Well Alliance.
Fresh MARTA Market began with one stand at the West End Station in a neighborhood that was hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis It has expanded to five stations. Open April through December, the markets have grown their customer base from 3,500 in 2015 people to 60,000 people in 2019. The city plans to continue to expanding the markets to more locations and is rebranding them for the upcoming season. In 2018, it sold 46,000 pounds of produce, most of it from local urban farmers—an increase from the first year, when it sold 8,000 pounds and returned almost $8,000 to local farmers. “One way to help folks get access to healthy foods is to figure out how to get it on their way, or in their way,” Jerry Shannon said, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia who studies the geography of food access.
The whole food system “serves middle- and upper-income consumers pretty well, but not low-income consumers,” Shannon said. Produce often does not make sense to purchase with monthly SNAP benefits because it spoils more quickly. In Fulton County, Ga., 16 percent of people use food stamps, of which 45 percent are children. The markets double the value of SNAP benefits.
“There are a group of people that Fresh MARTA Market has been able to interact with that were never going to show up at a farmer’s market,” said Cicely Garrett, who helped create the program.
Tenisio Seanima, owner of Nature’s Candy Farmers in Atlanta, provided produce to the market its first four years and plans to continue next season. The program “demonstrates even cities can find creative ways to get involved in agriculture,” he said. The markets allow small farmers—there are an estimated 52 urban farms and 300 community gardens in the city—to sell their produce wholesale to MARTA without having to sell it individually or the hassle of selling to co-ops or school systems.
Jacob Vallo, MARTA’s senior director of transit-oriented development, said the markets have been a great way for the transit department to engage with users. He thinks that patience is key to implementing programs like MARTA markets in other cities. The markets in Atlanta are not profitable or self-sufficient yet.
“MARTA Markets is addressing the social side [of food insecurity] by meeting people literally where they are at and allowing them to take home quality food,” Seanima said.