By Rebecca Grapevine, contributor
Volunteers founded the market to address the lack of access to fresh food in Stone Mountain.
“The closest place people have to buy produce is the Walmart on Memorial Drive,” said Mary Sommers, who serves as president of the organization’s board. That’s two and a half miles from Shermantown.
When Sommers sees elderly people walking home from bus stops carrying bags of groceries, she thinks, “that’s just not right,” she said.
She and her team of volunteers first envisioned a brick-and-mortar store in Stone Mountain Village. But they soon realized that would be expensive and take a long time to set up, while the problem of healthy food access is urgent.
The food insecurity rate in Shermantown’s census tract was 10.8% in 2019, according to data from the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
So, the group decided to start small, launching a twice monthly outdoor market in April 2021.
One year later, the market has grown from making about $350 in sales to about $550 per market. The store now serves around 30 customers, give or take, at each session, Sommers said.
Customers who qualify for food assistance can buy produce for half-off through the Fresh for Less matching program. For each dollar the customer spends, he or she gets an additional dollar to spend from the program.
The discounts provide a big incentive to shop at the market, said treasurer Montrá Bernier, who was working the cash register on Saturday.
About a quarter of households in the Stone Mountain zip code relied on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program for food assistance in 2019, according to data provided by Sommers.
Along with food, the market provides community connections and pride.
“The staff is like family,” said a beaming Mae Phillips, who likes to buy fresh greens and fruit – especially grapes, her favorite.
“The quality of the food is incomparable to everything else,” added her neighbor Karim Murad, in between bites of a fruit and yogurt parfait sample. “I want to support health, quality of life. They are supporting that for us.”
Phillips and Murad live at The View, a senior residence on nearby Fourth Street. The pair walk to the market and are usually “first in line,” said Phillips.
Pastor Harvey Canty of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church said he jumped at the chance to host the market in the church parking lot, knowing it would help the surrounding community.
“It has been a tremendous success the past year,” said Canty. “This is something…that provides an opportunity for our community to get fresh fruit and vegetables when they could not elsewhere.”
A green ambulance stood just outside the church’s front door. Volunteers use it to transport products from vendors to the market.
The ambulance started out moving patients, then became a party bus before eventually being sold to the Stone Mountain non-profit.
Volunteers had had to tear out the black fur lining from the ambulance’s party days. They painted it the market’s signature green and plan to add logos to the sides.
Despite the upgrades, the green ambulance isn’t always reliable. The transmission recently had to be repaired and now the starter is on the fritz.
“It started today – it took some prayer,” said volunteer Shannon Elliott.
The market recently won a $150,000 grant from the American Heart Association’s Bernard J. Tyson Fund. Some of those funds will go toward purchasing an additional vehicle, Sommers said.
The market will soon start delivering food within a one-mile radius for seniors and others who cannot walk to the market. Sommers hopes the organization can hire a staff person as well.
Nearby, the smell of sizzling bacon summoned marketgoers to Chef Jay Richardson’s tent.
The chef, who lives in the neighborhood, was sautéing farm fresh brussels sprouts and apples in bacon drippings on two small hot plates. He demonstrates recipes at the market once a month.
Richardson said he likes “keeping everything in the community.”
“Here we know exactly where it’s coming from – we have relationships with the farmers,” said Richardson, a high school culinary arts teacher.
The market’s selection has expanded from 19 to 65 items. On Saturday, sheaves of greens, red radishes, yellow bananas, and plump strawberries lined long tables.
Cookies, breads, other baked goods, nuts, pickles, and jellies filled out the offerings.
The hyper-local products come from B&C Farms, Just Bakery, and German Bakery in Stone Mountain as well as outlets like Bread and Butter Farm in Monroe and Beast Little Cannery and David’s Garden in Lilburn.
Feed the Children
“The more we can promote these efforts, the healthier we will be,” said state Rep. Billy Mitchell, who lives nearby and represents Stone Mountain in the state House of Representatives.
“I visit a lot of schools in the county, and the only balanced meal a lot of students get is once a day in the schools,” Mitchell said.
As if to emphasize Mitchell’s point, the Stone Mountain High School Mighty Marching Pirates soon came marching up the church’s driveway to help celebrate.
Ninety-five percent of students at the school qualify for free or reduced-price lunches this year, according to data from the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning.
Despite such challenges, the band’s seniors have so far this year earned around $100,000 in college scholarships, band director Clifford Southern proudly announced to the cheering crowd.
The young musicians each got a free ticket to enter a raffle, along with slices of colorful birthday cake.
Marco Reid, a tenth grader who plays the cymbals, picked up a pineapple to take home. He said he would have no trouble slicing up the spiky fruit for a snack.
“In Stone Mountain and Lithonia, it can be hard to find affordable food for a large family,” said Paige Smith, a mother of four, who tries to buy organic when she can. “It’s affordable and I’m supporting my neighbors. I had to come out and celebrate the anniversary.”
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