Finding ways to link farmers with city customers

Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Christy Shi

I’ve spent many hours in the last few years working on behalf of Charlotte-area farms and farmers, trying to help build and nurture a community-based food system and experimenting with new ways to distribute food from local farms to customers.  But this summer my focus shifted from farmers in the fields to customers in the city.

I'm working as executive director of the new Charlotte City Market. But it’s all part of the same aim I had as co-founder of Know Your Farms – to build a community-based food system in this region.

The Charlotte City Market was set up earlier this year as a nonprofit entity, focusing on local, healthy food education. Its mission:

  • Celebrate the diverse food culture of the Carolinas.
  •  Support local farmers, food artisans and farmers markets.
  •  Incubate food-related businesses.
  •  Address food access, health and education issues.

The first project focus for the Charlotte City Market is to open a public marketplace in uptown Charlotte.  The market, named the “7venth (pronounced seventh) – Public Market,” is scheduled to open in October or November in the ground floor of the Seventh Street Station parking garage, in the former site of Reid's Fine Foods.

A public market should be a destination, and one that supports its community will resonate with authenticity. The Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit group with recognized expertise in designing and animating public places, tells us a thriving public place should offer people 10 reasons to be there. And this summer, as I’ve been talking with the community, I’ve discovered what some of those things might be.

With its focus on local food, the market will attract people who want to buy fresh products from local farms. Located uptown, it should be a lunch destination for office workers.  Neighbors will want to gather in the evenings for a glass of wine or a take-out meal.  On weekends, tourists from outside the city may wander over for a bit of entertainment, such as chef demos and the craftsman skillfully sharpening knives.

That kind of entertainment is also a vehicle for education – but not the only one.  With support from Carolinas Medical Center, a Live Well outpost will offer health screening and education.  Collaborations with the nearby Levine Museum of the New South and ImaginOn children’s library will allow the market to celebrate food from heritage and youthful perspectives. Behind the scenes, market vendors will develop their entrepreneurial expertise with assistance from Central Piedmont Community College and others.

In addition to food and entertainment, 7venth will be a place for the community to gather, for everything from meet-ups to film viewings to full-scale events. The diversity of interests of community groups who have contacted me is exciting: Turkish cooking classes, beekeepers’ associations, technology user groups and refugee assistance networks.

7venth – Public Market should be more than a farmers market. It should be an authentic community gathering place.  But it’s important to remember that at its root, the market’s purpose is to support our local food system. In the excitement of creating a public destination, we may lose sight of the underlying mission.

That’s where I come in.  My work with farmers and community food advocates in our community has given me a strong understanding of where the system’s weak points are.  For example, farmers can’t be in two places at once – spending time at a market and simultaneously working on the farm. For another example, farmers are wary of trying to produce more until they know how they can market produce that otherwise might sit unsold at a farmers market.

By engaging the Charlotte City Market project, I hope to bring the Charlotte community’s energy into the conversation about our food system so that we can create new models and new pathways for our community-based food system.

The overwhelming response from local farmers to this year-round, all-week-long market was that we need a new market model. Therefore, we’re developing a cooperative consignment concept for the farm-fresh portion of 7venth – Public Market.  Rather than having all farmers attend all hours, one or two farmers will represent the whole at any given time. That way we ensure customers have full access to farm-fresh products, while farmers can spend their time doing what they do best: raising food.

Ultimately, the Charlotte City Market can help with the creation of food systems infrastructure. One of the greatest challenges with local produce is its perishability and a lack of places to affordably process and preserve it.  With an eye on neighborhoods with limited food access, such as the Beatties Ford Road corridor, I expect to have such value-added processing (for example, facilities for canning and freezing) as part of the Charlotte City Market’s umbrella.  By reducing the risk of perishability and increasing the diversity of products offered for sale through the market, those facilities can support 7venth – Public Market, as well as other farmers markets and farmers.

Obviously, there is a lot of work to do to build our local food system. I invite you to join me in that work.  To launch an authentic public market, we need engagement from everyone in the community. We need your professional skills, your sweat equity and your financial support.  Most of all, we want you to celebrate our local food system with us at 7venth – Public Market.  I look forward to seeing you there.

Christy Shi started Shi-Day Consulting. She can be reached at

Although Shi isn’t its director any more, the work of Know Your Farms continues.

Photographs by Mike Rumph, courtesy Charlotte Center City Partners.