Toting a cloth bag topped by a tangle of beet greens, Bonna Brunelle leaned on her cane and scanned the offerings at the Centennial Lakes Farmers Market in Edina with a knowledgeable eye.

"I grew up on a farm," she said. "The stuff in grocery stores doesn't taste the same. I've picked it, planted it, weeded it. I know."

With no car, the 85-year-old used to take the bus to the Minneapolis Farmers Market. That stopped when routes changed and the trip required several transfers. So Brunelle was delighted when Edina's market debuted Thursday, within walking distance of her condo.

"Very possibly I will be here every week," she said.

The Edina market and a new Friday market in Richfield that opens this week are the fruit of a two-year, $1.6 million state grant to Bloomington, Richfield and Edina to reduce obesity and other health problems among residents. The Statewide Health Improvement Program grant is funded by a fee paid by health care providers. The aim is to help low-income and disabled people, senior citizens and immigrants get easier access to fresh food and vegetables and to be more active while doing it.

"The whole idea is to get people moving around more on a regular basis ... and make fresh food more accessible and available," said Sueling Schardin, who is part of a Bloomington team that is administering the grant for the three cities.

The three-year-old Bloomington market is a big success, drawing hundreds of people each Saturday morning to City Hall parking lots. But focus groups of disabled, low-income and immigrant residents revealed that many people didn't know the market was there. That included people who lived nearby.

"That shocked me," said Eileen O'Connell, health promotion and planning manager for Bloomington's health department. People were concerned that food would be expensive and that the market would be hard to get to or lack parking. Many people didn't see the value of buying fresh, locally grown produce, she said.

As a result of that feedback, Bloomington has begun advertising the market by posting fliers in churches, libraries and food shelves. Some churches promote it in their bulletins. Libraries created free farmers market bookmarks, and the city made market lawn signs.

New maps showed where people could park and how they could walk to the market. Last week the city ran a bike-to-the-market promotion, and a "global celebration" in June drew a diverse crowd of more than 1,000 people.

Bloomington's challenges are not unusual, said Jerry Shannon, a University of Minnesota graduate student who is pursuing a doctorate in geography. He's studying efforts to increase food security and sustainability in low-income neighborhoods.

Different takes on markets

Researchers have found farmers markets are most attractive to educated white people, he said. For many middle-class people, the markets seem a symbol of simpler times and a way to support local growers, Shannon said, but for other groups they may summon more complex feelings about farm labor and migrant farming. Lack of on-site technology prevents most markets from allowing people to use the government food aid that goes to poorer families.

But in the last decade, cities around the country are reaching into neighborhoods where fresh fruit and vegetables might be difficult to find by setting up satellite markets to fix those "food deserts," Shannon said. That's what's happening in Richfield, which for 20 years has had a successful Saturday market at Veterans Memorial Park.

Starting Friday, a market will run from 2 to 6 p.m. in Roosevelt Park at 77th Street and Portland Avenue. The new market, which will run at least through the end of August, is trying to reach apartment residents nearby, many of them Hispanic. Eating more fruits and vegetables would be one way to help control chronic disease and obesity in that community, O'Connell said.

Ten vendors selling fruit and vegetables, fresh-cut flowers and bread will be at the new market, which is being promoted with Spanish-language posters and radio ads and in churches with Hispanic congregations. Stores that cater to Hispanic customers were eager to promote the market, Schardin said.

Success will be watched

If the market is successful, it could extend into fall, said Frank White, who supervises farmers markets for Richfield. Whether it continues in future years depends on sales.

While Edina isn't normally seen as a place where residents have problems getting fresh produce, O'Connell said the city's large senior population means it may be an issue for some people.

Centennial Lakes is perfect for the new market, she said. "It's on a bus line, with easy parking, and accessible for people in wheelchairs and those who have difficulty walking." Surrounded by condos and senior apartments, it's also near apartments where families on limited incomes live.

All three cities will do surveys this summer to see what people think of the markets. On the first day of Edina's market, about one-third of the people who strolled past stalls appeared to be seniors.

They included Dorothy Cook and Evelyn Hyams, who live in nearby condos and walked across the park to the market. Cook was pushing a cart that held three kinds of lettuce, sweet onions, orange marmalade and green beans.

"It's marvelous," Cook said. "Everything's fresh. I'll be here once a week."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380