It was nearly dinnertime for shoppers as they traversed the aisles of the Maple Grove Farmers Market. The sun was in late-afternoon splendor, a welcome breeze assuring it was a perfect summer afternoon. Produce beckoned, bushels of fresh dill here, cukes and carrots there, blueberries in all their glory filling up a makeshift counter.
Oliver and Livia Walseth of Maple Grove were ready, and maybe a little hungry, after a bike ride to the market with their aunt, Jacki Lang. They were among the children who signed up for the market’s second year of its Power of Produce program (POP), which offers children ages 5 to 12 a $2 token each time they visit the market. The wooden chips are used to buy fresh fruits and vegetables from market vendors.
With tokens in hand, green shopping bags over their shoulders, Oliver, 8, and Livia, 7, headed out to stalk the produce.
First stop, the booth with quick breads. The zucchini loaf and banana chocolate chip bread looked mighty tempting. It’s produce, right?
Well, not in this case. Fortunately for the Walseths, Lang was ready with dollars in her pocket for a loaf to bring home. “Let’s keep looking,” she told her charges, as she reminded them that the tokens were strictly for raw fruits and vegetables.
The POP program, which originated in 2011 with the Oregon City, Ore., Farmers Market, has been embraced by markets nationwide. Maple Grove’s effort opened in mid-July for a 12-week adventure in fruits and vegetables. Last year more than 600 children were part of its initial program, together making 1,157 shopping trips to the market during its six-week pilot effort.
This year, after doubling the length of the program, the Maple Grove market is looking for even more growth.
Mill City Farmers Market in downtown Minneapolis jumped into the program this year. On its first day in mid-June, 80 children signed up.
“It was a crazy first day,” said Kate Heilmann, marketing manager. Several weeks later, more than 200 kids have joined the program, which continues at least through August; anything longer depends on additional funding.
“Parents are thrilled,” said Heilmann. “Some wanted us to put out a tip jar because they were happy we’re getting kids to eat their veggies.”
If you were a kid, what would you buy with $2? Children at the Maple Grove market buy kohlrabi and raspberries, cabbage and borage, and much more.
Kirsten Bansen Weigle, manager of the market, says parents use words like “empowered,” “ownership” and “enthusiasm” when they talk about their children’s response to choosing produce. When Maple Grove conducted a survey of its POP participants last year, more than 50 percent of the parents noted that their children were trying more new fruits and vegetables at home compared with before the program.
It’s not only the influence on produce choices that parents like. Children also have an opportunity to manage their “money” and work on their math. Some might spend their token each week; others can save them for a larger purchase later in the summer.
At Monticello Farmers Market, where 270 kids are registered for the program, market coordinator Sara Cahill reminds kids that they can join with their siblings for a team effort to buy a bigger item, such as a watermelon.
Then there is the benefit of finding out where food comes from and talking with the farmers.
“I think this is an essential part of the market,” said Weigle. “People are losing their food skills. It’s the pace of life we live in. Even those of us trying to be cognizant of what we’re eating, it’s easy to just grab prewashed bags of produce in the grocery store. We need to prepare the next generation with some intuitive skills in cooking. There’s no substitute for children being hands-on with food.”
The enthusiasm goes beyond households. The markets report that vendors are on board with the effort. “It’s more support for our farmers,” said Heilmann. At Mill City, vendors have cooperated by bundling some produce in $2 packages so that children are able to make a purchase without help from a parent.
“It’s such a smart and simple concept,” said chef and educator Jenny Breen, who teaches with the Healthy Food Healthy Lives Institute at the University of Minnesota. “It works on all levels. I’m very impressed.”
Back at the Maple Grove market, Oliver and Livia were still hunting for the perfect fruit or vegetable.
“Look at those carrots,” suggested Lang to her niece and nephew.
They look and move on.
“How about green beans?” Lang asked.
“I want fruit,” said Livia, and together they wandered until they found the berries. She reached for a pint, which cost more than her token allowed. Lang dipped into her pocket again and made up the difference as Livia dropped the berries into her shopping bag.
Oliver still needed just-the-right vegetable. He passed by the eggplant, the potatoes and green peppers.
Then the cucumbers caught his eye. “What size would you like?” asked the farmer behind the counter.
Oliver was set.
Like all good ideas, POP is not as easy to pull off as it appears. Someone has to pay for those $2 tokens.
“The main expense is reimbursing vendors for the tokens, but supplies, staffing and promotion also add cost,” said Weigle of Maple Grove. That means lining up sponsors or grants to pay for the tokens, as well as finding volunteers to keep track of the kids’ registration each visit. The Monticello market was able to tap into a grant from the Minnesota Department of Health. Mill City received financial support from Chipotle Mexican Grill. All depend on additional community resources and the generosity of local business to further fund their programs.
Back in Maple Grove, Livia nibbled on a blueberry, then reached for another, and another, as she finished her market visit.
There was no way all those berries were going to make their way home. And that was all good.
Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste