On June 23, South King County’s highly anticipated, community-driven farmers market is returning for its third year. The Tukwila Village Farmers Market is a nonprofit that serves as an incubator for urban growers who are immigrants or refugees. Hosted in the plaza outside Spice Bridge — the food hall where every business owner is an immigrant or refugee woman — the market aims to address racial inequity and increase food access for underserved populations.
“It’s about supporting locally grown food, which other markets do — but ours is really about the people behind all that,” says Kara Martin, program director of the Food Innovation Network (FIN), the incubator arm of nonprofit Global to Local. The market is a joint effort with the International Rescue Committee’s New Roots program, which helps newly arrived immigrant and refugee growers navigate U.S. regulatory and commercial systems, cultivate crops in Washington’s climate, and start their own farming operations.
Many of the growers live near the market, and the first of New Roots’ sites, Namaste Community Gardens, is just three blocks away. “Some of the produce has been cut within hours of opening and walked over — it’s that close,” Martin says.
What one customer calls a “small but mighty” operation started as a single farm stand in the Tukwila YMCA lobby in 2017; the effort expanded to a second stand in 2018, and in 2019, it became a full-fledged market. This season will feature several booths for independent growers and farming collectives, along with a New Roots consignment table that aggregates assorted produce from growers with tiny operations or surplus. A mobile pantry will also distribute bags of staple foods, such as oil or beans, to members in need biweekly.
The Market accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and participates in SNAP Market Match, which doubles aid. It also sees more SNAP customers become repeat shoppers than other markets, and helps to connect under-resourced customers with healthy food.
Demand is huge, too: Tukwila’s growers — which hail from countries such as Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Kenya — regularly sell out before the market ends. “They’re selling things that you won’t necessarily see at the grocery store or at other farmers markets, but [that] serve the needs of many different cultural groups,” Martin says.
FIN and New Roots are also working with community partners and doing outreach with aspiring farmers to involve the Spice Bridge vendors in a more targeted way. Before the pandemic, those vendors were able to source from growers. But in 2020, most assembled their shopping lists from local groceries, African-owned shops, and imports. “We missed a lot,” says Adama Jammeh, who co-owns Afella Jollof Catering at Spice Bridge with sister Oumie Sallah. “Moving forward, we want to be coordinating with [growers] ... it’s cheaper, plus it’s organic, and we can do one-stop shopping.” Ultimately, Martin adds, FIN’s goal is to facilitate integration between growers and Spice Bridge vendors, from seed to plate: “There’s a lot of potential for natural markets to evolve.”
The market doesn’t charge growers a fee for their booths, but rather pays them for their labor. That’s made possible through its nonprofit model, supported through Global to Local with multi-year funding from Seattle and King County’s (PHSKC) Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) initiative. The operation is also backed by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Seattle Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, a nonprofit that supports women in the food and beverage and hospitality industries.
Not only do growers gain experience with market operations, but it can have a larger impact on the community. Washington State University King County Extension’s SNAP-Ed program is a partner, providing nutritional information and children’s activities at a regular market booth. Martin also describes a wheelchair-bound customer who made hugely impactful dietary changes as a result of what she learned: While the customer found grocery-store shopping stressful, the market made her feel more comfortable, and the whole experience “transformed her daily life.”
The Tukwila Farmers Market opens for the season June 23 and runs through mid-October, every Wednesday from 4 to 7 p.m. at Tukwila Village Plaza: 14350 Tukwila International Blvd.