By Lani Furbank, Photography by Rey Lopez
After hours of packing produce, Hugo Mogollon finally has a moment to rest and watch the farmers selling stone fruit, squash and beans to their customers—many of them immigrants from El Salvador, Ethiopia or Vietnam.
As executive director of Community Foodworks, the nonprofit that runs this Columbia Heights Farmers Market and 13 like it in the region, Mogollon reflects on how the market’s multicultural audience—including customers who could afford the premiums for local produce and those who could not—helped shape the organization from the start.
“The fact that the neighborhood was so mixed-income, that’s what set the whole culture and our mission,” he says. “This is what made us realize that everybody has to have the same access to the same produce.”
Mogollon joined Community Foodworks in 2015 after moving to the United States from Ecuador. When he came on board, the nonprofit was managing three farmers markets and had just received a grant to open a second Columbia Heights market on Wednesdays and develop a community-supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription program for low-income residents.
On a warm evening in July, the Wednesday market buzzes with energy. Children splash in the Civic Plaza fountain while a line of people waiting to receive their Produce Plus checks stretches down the block.
The food community credits Mogollon’s leadership for the market’s incredible growth, but he isn’t interested in taking it. “I have been lucky to have this amazing group of people that are passionate about what we do, and that’s why this works,” he says. “CFW is what it is because of the staff.”
Providing equal access to quality produce sounds like a simple concept, but focusing on that mission helped Community Foodworks find its niche in an already robust food landscape.
Even as more markets grow their programs to serve the typically underserved, Community Foodworks’ focus on residents who might not otherwise have access to local food stands out.
Lindsay Smith, a planning and food systems consultant who has worked with Mogollon for the last few years, says that’s especially true “in a city with such an impressive amount of talent dedicated to improving food security.”
“The heart, optimism and strategic thinking that Hugo has brought not to just Community Foodworks but also to serving farmers markets nationally is striking to me,” she says.
Mogollon, who serves on the national Farmers Market Coalition board, has a core belief that farmers market and local food culture should cater to customers of all income levels—which meant the organization had to rethink programs that traditionally didn’t.
Mogollon looked at the disconnect between the farmer and certain residents and decided, “there’s work to do.” So Community Foodworks developed not one, but several unique models of distribution to connect those residents with fresh, local produce.
Sharing the market
Every Wednesday evening during the growing season, rows of burlap tote bags line up under pop-up tents at the market. Spring onion tops spill out of the bags, hiding a week’s worth of produce—summer squash, peppers, tomatoes in the summer, Butternut squash, potatoes and hearty greens in the fall. They’re awaiting pickup by dozens of participants in the Market Share program, a unique interpretation of community-supported agriculture.
“A normal CSA works in a way that you pay a chunk of money at the beginning of the year, and that way you support the farmer to do all the work for the year,” Mogollon explains. “But for low-income residents, they don’t have the luxury to have that amount of money and put in the chunk at the beginning of the year.”
His organization has designed the program with flexibility to serve all members of the Columbia Heights community. To that end, Market Share buys wholesale from three local farms, and then grants and donations allow low-income residents to pay weekly with federal nutrition benefits such as SNAP or WIC, and receive their share at a 75% discount.
“We see that it’s always this idea, ‘Because you are low-income, your food is also going to be a lower quality,’” Mogollon says. With Market Share, “you receive exactly the same bag, exactly the same product—which is a prime product—at a very low price.”
In addition to the hundreds of customers who pick up their produce at various locations each week through the program that began in 2015, Market Share also serves 200 seniors who are homebound by delivering a bag to their door.
“The order that we were asking the farmers to bring kept becoming larger and larger as we added more people,” Mogollon says. Now, the Market Share purchases account for more than half of what farmers make at Community Foodworks markets.
This sparked an idea about how to address lack of food access in Wards 7 and 8, which are underserved by grocery stores and farmers markets because “residents don’t have the disposable income,” Mogollon says. He wanted to find a way to reduce the risk for farmers who might not otherwise be able to sell there.
Mogollon explains that one method of incentivizing risky markets is to pay the farmer a certain sum, regardless of what they sell. “That model has the flaw that those dollars go to the farmer, but the food goes nowhere,” he says.
Instead, Community Foodworks launched a suite of solutions to serve residents in those wards: a pop-up food hub and satellite vegetable stands. “We think that all these low-income areas are an untapped market for farmers,” Mogollon says. “We’re not competing or taking a share of the market from other food hubs…Our clients are a different kind of client, the kind that’s not being served.”
The pop-up food hub operates in tandem with a farmers market, treating it as a “natural point of aggregation” and helping farmers sell more food to more people during each trip to the city.
Minimum order requirements often prevent small organizations like churches, early-care centers and clinics from procuring their food from a conventional food hub. “That’s the barrier we want to break,” Mogollon says. Community Foodworks compiles small orders, places one wholesale order with the farmer, and then delivers the other orders to each organization.
“The demand is huge. We started last year, and we were thinking, ‘Let’s find five clients,’” Mogollon says. “By the end of the year, we’re working with 47 organizations.”
The satellite vegetable stands also amplify sales by allowing the farmers to send some of their produce to a separate location, where a community member is employed to sell the food on behalf of the farmer. In 2016, CFW had just one farmers market in Ward 7 on a Saturday, and that year the farmers made around $11,000.
“Last year, we had three veggie stands, and they made $65,000—in the same trip, with same effort,” Mogollon says. “If you work to solve food insecurity but you don’t think about the farmer, you are not creating justice.”