MADELEINE BARAN

Minnesota Public Radio via Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- Tim Page has broken up concrete, chased away woodchucks, and battled an overflowing sewer with one purpose in mind -- to create a farmers market to bring fresh produce to north Minneapolis residents.

The Streetwerks Youth Farmers Market opened in July in the parking lot of a former gas station, after a year of work, and with the help of a team of young adults from the neighborhood.

On the market's second day of business, three teenagers picked vegetables from a nearby garden, set up a tent on the cracked asphalt parking lot, and waited for customers.

As rain began to fall, an elderly woman walked up to buy a basket of okra. The newly minted farmers helped her pick the best batch while cars zipped by along the industrial stretch of Glenwood Avenue.

"I saw the potential here," said Page, 47, surveying the community gardens across the street from the market. "You know how you want to be part of a success? This feels pretty good right now."

The Streetwerks market is part of a growing movement to open small-scale farmers markets in low-income Minneapolis neighborhoods where fresh produce is scarce. Organizers say the markets are starting to transform the diets -- and the economy -- of some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

The effort got its start three years ago, after a local group struggled to open a small market outside a low-income housing complex. The group asked the Minneapolis City Council to reduce fees and paperwork for markets with five or fewer vendors. Council members agreed, and the "mini market" was born.

Since then, the number of markets has almost doubled each year. This summer, neighborhood groups are running 21 mini markets outside public housing high-rises, churches, and clinics. Most markets are open for two or three hours once or twice a week, often in the late afternoon when people are returning from work.

"People are looking for very close, immediate access to food," said JoAnne Berkenkamp, the local foods program director for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the group that has led the mini market effort. "These markets fill a niche that is not yet met in many areas of the city."

City regulations prohibit mini markets from selling non-produce items, like bread and honey, but organizers say they don't mind a few restrictions in exchange for hundreds of dollars of savings in start-up fees and operating costs.

The organizer of a regular farmers market pays $291 to get a business license and $169 a year to renew it, along with more fees for health inspections. Many farmers then pay several hundred dollars a year in rental or parking fees.

Local foods advocates said the process didn't make sense for small markets.

"It was too complicated. It was too expensive, and it was inappropriate for a place that basically wanted to set up a tent with a couple of farmers," said city employee Lara Tiede, who worked with some of the first mini markets as part of the Steps to a Healthier Minnesota initiative.

Instead, mini market organizers pay $100 for a zoning permit and $58 for a review of the market's health safety plan. Renewal is free. The markets don't charge the farmers anything to rent the space, but many ask that farmers donate unsold produce to local food shelves in exchange.

Marie Mosman said the low fees made it possible for her to open a market this year in the parking lot of Calvary Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis.

"It's a great deal," she said. "We're finally able to get some good fresh produce into this neighborhood."

At the church's market last week, three vendors sold lettuce, cilantro, carrots and cucumbers while children weaved in and out of the farmers' tents and sampled the merchandise.

The neighborhood's closest large grocery store is two miles away. A corner store down the street recently added a produce section, but residents say the wilting vegetables, surrounded by Hostess Cup Cakes, chips and hyper-colored drinks, are no match for freshly picked produce.

"It's so barren around here," said market customer and chef Lafayette Montgomery, sweeping his arms out toward the blocks around the market. "This is kind of the oasis."

Organizers say the markets are also a perfect fit for the Farmers Market Nutrition Program, a federal program that provides $20 each summer in vouchers for low-income households.

At the mini market at Ebenezer Tower Apartments, a low-income senior housing complex in south Minneapolis, over half of the customers pay in vouchers. Many say that they used to throw the vouchers away because they either didn't know how to use them or couldn't afford to travel to a bigger market.

On a recent afternoon, 67-year-old Alexandra Alexander grabbed her vouchers, walked a few hundred feet from her apartment's front door and returned with a two-dollar bundle of carrots and a three-dollar bouquet of brightly colored sunflowers and daisies.

"I love how easy it is," she said.

Neighbor DuAnn Burtness, 76, said she likes the market for a different reason: "I'm a farm girl. I hate the city."

Burtness said she begrudgingly moved to Minneapolis from rural Wells, Minn., eight years ago at the request of her family. She said she's missed farm life ever since -- especially the radish and onion sandwiches and the vinegar cucumbers her family used to make.

Before the market opened, she rarely ventured out of her apartment to buy vegetables. "But when it's right in front of you, I might eat them a little more," she said, eyeing the cucumbers.

Organizers say that the mini markets also benefit local farmers -- by giving veteran farmers places to sell produce in between the bigger market days and by giving new farmers an easy way to get started.

Moses Momanyi started selling vegetables at the Calvary Lutheran Church market three weeks ago, trucking his cilantro, cabbage and peas from a farm an hour's drive away. He earned $70 the first week and $45 the following week.

"I keep hoping that more and more people will come," he said. "I need to make about $200 to feel good about it."

Momanyi knows that earning $200 at a three-hour market will be difficult. Mini market vendors average $135 in daily sales per market, according to a 2008 study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

But like many vendors, Momanyi sells produce at several mini markets, often on the same day. He has also experimented with selling produce directly to fellow Kenyan immigrants and has a growing wholesale business.

Despite the limited earnings, mini market organizers say they have not lost a single vendor. The markets work with over two dozen farmers and receive phone calls from new farmers almost every week.

Some markets have also started their own urban farms -- and many have ambitious plans that go far beyond selling fresh vegetables.

The Streetwerks Youth Farmers Market is part of a city-funded youth summer employment program run by Emerge Community Development, a north Minneapolis-based nonprofit. Participants spend 28 hours a week working in the garden, running the market, and learning business skills.

"You have to be ready when you come here," said Michael Sapho, an 18-year-old Streetwerks employee. "You never know what to expect."

Sapho, who plans to join the Army this fall, jokes that his current mission is to defend the vegetables from a persistent woodchuck. The animal has already eaten its way through several garden plots, and shows little sign of slowing down.

"I haven't seen him, and to be honest, I don't know that I want to see him," he said, laughing.

Page, the market manager, said he doesn't mind a few gnawed leaves and empty patches. In fact, he said he's glad the project has faced a few problems along the way.

"We want them to have something they need to fix," he explained. "That's the only way you learn. We want them to be able to come back and say, 'Well, maybe I did mess up my whole check last week, or maybe I made a mistake with planting, but I can fix it.'"

Although Page already spends up to 60 hours a week tending the gardens and overseeing his team of workers, he said he's just getting started.

He plans to build an outdoor performing arts space and a miniature golf course next to the community garden this summer, with the goal of creating a community space that encourages healthy living.

And he's been busy writing a play, called "Reggie Won't Eat Veggies," in collaboration with neighborhood kids.

After rattling off a list of plans, including a double-dutch jump rope contest funded by produce sales and a free afternoon garden tea sampling, Page headed back to close up the market for the day.

He said that he hopes to inspire neighborhood youth to expand farmers markets into their communities. Three Streetwerks teenagers are already planning to run their own mini markets in north Minneapolis next summer.

"That's the best part," he said. "That will be the ultimate if just one youth takes this experience and brings it somewhere else."

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Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, http://www.mpr.org

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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