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The West End is not exactly what the USDA would consider a food desert. There’s a Kroger within walking distance and on the bus route from the West End Station. But when surveyed, more than 75 percent of West End residents and MARTA customers who responded expressed interest in a fresh market at the station, citing a lack of access to fresh produce and fresh fruit.

And so MARTA delivered by launching the Fresh MARTA Markets in an effort to spread its Transient Oriented Development projects equitably throughout the city and bring amenities to its TOD projects that are not currently in transit-dependent communities — specifically to its weaker, more challenging markets like the south and west side.

This innovative food access solution became a partnership between Community Farmers Markets, GA Food Oasis-Atlanta, Atlanta Community Food Bank, Organix Matters, and MARTA. The Fresh MARTA Market sources locally grown produce from members of the Southwest Atlanta Growers Cooperative and farmers affiliated with Community Farmers Markets, as well as several local food hubs, giving local farmers the opportunity to sell more produce to consumers that might not otherwise make it to a farmers market. This produce is complemented by non-local produce so that Fresh MARTA Market patrons can do a large amount of their fresh food shopping on their way to or from home.

“We realize that all communities don’t have adequate access to fresh and affordable produce,” said MARTA GM/CEO Keith Parker. “For us, the Fresh MARTA Market is an opportunity to help bridge that gap while promoting healthy meal choices.”

Now in its third season since its pilot debut in 2015, the Fresh MARTA Market has managed to sustain and scale what seemingly, at least initially, eluded the owners of the Boxcar Grocer.

Sibling duo Alison and Alphonzo Cross had good food, engaging vibes and thriving community top of mind for the geo-social hub of downtown Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill, West End and Mechanicsville offshoots. By shortening the supply chain and working directly with local farms like Truly Living Well, Metro Atlanta Urban Farm, HABESHA, and Patchwork City Farms, they attempted to change what it meant to make healthy food accessible — especially to urban communities previously lacking the availability of choice.

At its zenith, the Crosses launched their version of an indoor farmers market. “Part food court, part pop-up restaurant. It started with us questioning how we could offer a wider variety of food and involve as many other businesses as possible,” says Alison. “We took the experience of the outdoor farmers market — different vendors, rotating schedules, surprises — and brought it inside. A rotating team of vendors selling directly from stalls in the store, very similar to a farmers market.”

But rising food and labor costs and lack of infrastructure in the immediate area to help make it easier for people to actually access the store plagued the grocer. It shuttered its doors in 2015, right on the cusp of MARTA’s Fresh Market pilot.

“Over the last 10 years, the American population has been fed a version of new urbanism that re-imagines suburban sprawl replaced by mixed-use communities offering access to services, food, and economic opportunities capable of creating a sustainable foundation for local neighborhoods.”

What had failed to materialize with this paradigm shift to date, however, was a replicable business or quasi-business response with how food can be incorporated into this type of urban design.

“If we are to redefine urbanism by transforming the built environment and the human relationships therein, the purpose for which leads to an increase in opportunities for healthy communities, then equitable solutions to landscape management, food distribution, and sustainable growth of local producers must be paramount in the civic conversation and distribution of capital to ensure that this new model can emerge. Transformational re-engagement with the landscape from a business perspective means valuing the people most responsible for impacting the health of the population and the environment. To put it bluntly: our ‘new’ cities should begin with the economic sustainability of local farms.”

Cicely Garrett, Food Oasis Senior Advisor and the Deputy Chief Resilience Officer at City of Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Resilience, made the transit-to-table connection with infrastructure and food security as well.

“Transportation is a key factor in improving access to food, especially for underserved communities that have indicated a need for retail opportunities to access affordable fresh and healthy food. Each of the partners in the Fresh MARTA Market represents a unique, yet essential perspective to the venture; a collaboration of community, farmers, market and transportation.”

The Fresh MARTA Market has continued to grow and now serves four rail stations — West End, College Park, H.E. Holmes and Five Points. This year, the Atlanta Community Food bank will conduct screenings for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Childcare and Parent Services programs, which offers childcare subsidies to some of Georgia’s neediest families. Shoppers can also use Georgia Fresh for Less, formerly SNAP 2-for-1. Under the program, every dollar spent at the market becomes $2 in goods for shoppers.

“The Fresh MARTA Market is not an end or a comprehensive solution but it is a start and opportunity to engage farmers and consumers outside of the traditional farmer’s market model,” says Garrett. “Ideally in future years, farmers would have individual agreements with MARTA to operate stands at all 37 transit stations.”

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