Nourish Knoxville is committed to cultivating healthy communities
On a bright, sunny Saturday, Ryan Sowell and his almost-5-year-old daughter, Lindley, visited the Market Square Farmers’ Market on their way to the Car Show. When Sowell was a student at UT, he visited the market almost every Saturday because it was walking distance from his apartment. “We want our kids to grow up with real food and know how to prepare it,” said Sowell, a senior manager in partner development with Amazon Web Services.
“It’s great that they have a kids’ program here. Lindley got a voucher for five dollars and chose some sweet potatoes. She was really excited to pick them out herself. We roasted Lindley’s sweet potatoes with a little olive oil and butter. Between that five-dollar voucher and the two dollars she got from the Tooth Fairy, she’s quite pleased.”
For some 20 years, Knoxvillians have enjoyed watching the Farmers Market grow and prosper. Since 2013, the ethos of community-supported agriculture and nutritious food has rocketed to new heights through the efforts of Nourish Knoxville, a nonprofit promoting local food systems in ever-expanding ways.
“We strive to create a sustainable food system in which everyone has access to healthy, locally grown food, and farmers can make a living wage,” says Executive Director Charlotte Tolley. “We now operate three farmers’ markets, create the East Tennessee Local Food Guide, provide multiple nutrition-incentive programs, and donate locally grown produce to partner organizations.”
Nourish Knoxville works closely with local and state government officials to advocate for policies that support local food systems and sustainable agriculture, farm-to-school programs, urban agriculture, and small-scale farmers.
Among its programs, the organization offers workshops and classes for adults on topics such as gardening and cooking with local ingredients. It partners with local schools to bring fresh, locally grown produce to cafeterias and teach children about the importance of healthy eating and where their food comes from. In addition, it welcomes field trips to the market, providing seasonal-produce scavenger hunts, recipes, and local food education, rewarding participants like Lindley Sowell with “Produce Bucks.”
Nourish Knoxville provides resources and support to community gardens in the Knoxville area, helping to increase access to fresh produce and promote community engagement. A Veggie Voucher Program helps low-income families purchase fresh produce at farmers’ markets, making healthy food more accessible to those who need it.
“There are so many food deserts in the Knoxville area where you can’t find fresh vegetables,” says Chef Jeffrey DeAlejandro of OliBea, an original Nourish Knoxville board member. “There just aren’t any grocery stores in some areas. For a while, there were some farms in Maryville that would give you as many free vegetables as you wanted if you helped with the harvest. Now, people are paying attention and having fun with where their food is sourced. They say, ‘Oh these are the Mossy Creek mushrooms? They use those at Blackberry Farm.’”
Communities Creating a Public Space—the Farmers’ Market
In 2001, Tolley—a native of Lucy, Tennessee, just north of Memphis—earned her BFA in photography and film from UT. “After school I worked at a bakery in London through a work-abroad program and spent a lot of time at a lot of public markets,” she told Laura Ayo of the News Sentinel. “The public market space is utilized by all of the community and becomes the central gathering point. Farmers, butchers, bakers, and cheesemongers sold their goods alongside artisans and artists. I really liked the way those communities worked together to create a public space.”
Back in Knoxville, working for Bliss and Tomato Head on Market Square, she joined the Market Square District Association. Partnering with local businesses and others, she helped launch a farmers’ market. She was named its volunteer director in 2005. “It was important to us in the beginning to earn trust and stick with our ideals, which has definitely paid off for us,” Tolley told Ayo.
“If memory serves,” says David Gwin of VG’s Bakery. “I think there were eight vendors at the first MSFM and we were all on the stage area. No way did I envision it growing into the massive two-block event it has become. However, there was a real sense of ‘community’ at the beginning, like we were all in this together.”
“Market Square was my early morning go-to,” recalls DeAlejandro. “I’d get there early on Wednesday and Saturdays with a shopping cart and get almost everything I needed. Those days were crazy. Everyone knew everyone. We’d swap food and have folks eat for free. I remember when I started putting the farm names on the menus at Crown and Goose, they thought I was wasting ink!”
“Market Square itself was for the most part a place no one needed to visit except for Tomato Head,” says Gwin. “I truly believe the amazing growth of the MSFM opened the eyes of investors to the potential for Market Square. Charlotte believed so strongly in what we could do for the area, and she encouraged us to put our best out for the shoppers to experience. It opened our eyes to the possibility of actually thriving as a small business that was until then struggling. I am grateful for Charlotte to this day!”
The Importance of SNAP Customers
Gwin is gratified to see small eateries that rely heavily on the Market Street Farmers Market for their ingredients. “I get really excited when I see Jeff from OliBea’s and Drew [McDonald] from the Plaid Apron walking through the market with their wagons full of fresh, local produce and meats,” says Gwin. “So much has changed about the MSFM since the early years. With the advent of ‘Market Money’ more vendors were able to sell more products without committing to personally accepting credit cards. Then the EBT (SNAP) program allowed people getting assistance to experience truly ‘fresh’ food that is so much more tasty and nutritious.”
In 2008, the market became the first farmers’ market in Tennessee to accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) with a script-based system. Says Tolley, “When SNAP benefits moved from food stamps, the physical paper vouchers, to a card, it meant most small farmers and farmers’ markets could no longer accept SNAP benefits. We modeled our program after Texas’s Sustainable Food Center program and began accepting EBT/SNAP cards, giving customers tokens to spend with vendors.”
“Accepting SNAP benefits was a huge change in the organization’s outreach and a core part of the mission,” notes Fork Design architect Forrest Kirkpatrick, a Nourish Knoxville board member. “It elevated the markets from a boutique luxury for those interested in and able to afford local produce, to a food staple for a greater cross section of our community.”
The Birth of Nourish Knoxville
While the Farmers’ Market alone was successful, Tolley thought they could do more. Nourish Knoxville was founded in 2012 by several local farmers and community members who recognized the need to connect local farmers with consumers in the Knoxville area.
“Charlotte first approached me and the other founding board members about forming Nourish Knoxville after her realization of where much of the money generated by the Market was going,” remembers Webb teacher John Schmid. “Most of it was going to support events, like the Biscuit Festival, and other activities of the City Center group that had little to do with expanding the Downtown Market and increasing outreach on the local farm and food scene. That desire to increase investment in the market and in other ways that could positively impact local farmers and educate the community about buying local and eating healthy was the driver in forming Nourish Knoxville.”
Connecting Farmers Directly to Consumers
As more people shopped at farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs, offered a way for farmers to market directly to consumers. “They started as a way to sell extra produce,” says DeAlejandro, “but sometimes now the farmers sell out before they get to the market.” All can be found on Nourish Knoxville’s online Food and Farm Directory.
Jeff and Lyn Johnson of Sequoyah Hills for years had a CSA “subscription” from the Care of the Earth Farm. “I loved that it was organic and local,” says Lyn. “We would get a big box every other Saturday filled with seasonal produce, from the early spring greens, to summer squashes, onions, herbs, and tomatoes. We would plan our week’s menu after the box arrived and we saw what we had to work with. Once in a while we would get a squash or something we hadn’t seen before, and it was fun to find a recipe and learn how to prepare it.”
Connecting with Underserved Populations
Says Tolley, “In 2016 we were a part of a statewide grant with the AARP Foundation to double SNAP benefits up to $20 per day through their program, Fresh Savings. When that grant ended in 2019, we self-funded SNAP-doubling at our three markets and rebranded as Double Up Food Bucks, which is a national brand by the Fair Food Network. Thanks to a grant from the Tennessee Department of Health, we now fund Double Up Food Bucks at 16 locations in central East Tennessee. In 2022, SNAP recipients spent over $58,000 on local foods across the 16 locations, with 1,251 transactions (or customers).”
Knoxville Area Transit hung signs inside the buses going to Knoxville markets offering Double Up—Market Square Farmers’ Market, New Harvest Farmers’ Market (Bus Route 33), and Eastside Sunday Market (Bus Routes 33 and 34). At Market Square, the biggest market accepting SNAP, the number of SNAP and Double Up Food Bucks transactions rose from 170 in 2019 for $13,208, to 205 in 2020 for $28,626, peaking at 307 during the Covid year of 2021 for $35,492, and moderating to 270 in 2022 for $23,026.
“It’s been amazing to see the changes in Nourish Knoxville over the last decade,” says Kirkpatrick. “It’s been nothing but positive growth. It’s been so successful that I’ve actually lost count and track of what all NK is currently involved in. I honestly don’t know how Charlotte does it. What I do know is that it started with one market, two employees, three board members, and they were all working from home. The staff, the markets, the programs, and the board have all grown expansively since NK was founded, as has its positive effect on this town.”
How You Can Contribute
As a nonprofit, Nourish Knoxville relies on private donations, grants, and sponsorships from businesses and individuals. Tax-deductible donations may be made online or by check to P.O. Box 2422 Knoxville, TN 37901.
Nourish Knoxville is currently accepting volunteers to assist at the Wednesday Farmers’ Market, Thursday New Harvest Market, and the Saturday Market Square Market. Visit the web site or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.