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Monday, September 21, 2015

Red Stick Farmers Market, Uprooted

by Sydney "Brown Nose" Blanchard

Each month, our Uprooted series will highlight local chefs, restaurants, organizations, and farmers who are spearheading the farm-to-table and local foodways movements in South Louisiana.

Copper Alvarez is the Executive Director at BREADA. Photo courtesy of Copper Alvarez.

When you're the Executive Director at a local non-profit organization, your role often extends beyond the boardroom.

Just ask Copper Alvarez, Executive Director at BREADA, the Big River Economic & Agricultural Development Alliance. Alvarez finds the formality of her title at the Baton Rouge-based non-profit somewhat amusing. 

“It’s pretty official, but as far as executive directors go, I empty trash on Saturdays," Alvarez laughs. "I do things maybe all executive directors don’t do. We’re a small staff.”

When she's not manning garbage cans, Alvarez said her days are spent maintaining facilities, looking for new site partners, doing administrative grant work, coordinating markets, visiting farms, and working with chefs, farmers, and national groups.

“Every day is a different day, which is why I like it," she said.

The Mississippi native has been with BREADA since the non-profit formed 14 years ago, and in her years at the helm of the organization, she's seen the community come to embrace BREADA's programs including the Red Stick Farmer's Market and Main Street Market in downtown Baton Rouge.

The Red Stick Farmers Market began in 1996 when a group of farmers was recruited for the city's first farmer's market by graduate student Chris Campany as part of his Master's thesis in LSU's Landscape Architecture program.

That November, the first market was held, and six years later, BREADA opened Main Street Market downtown, which serves as a small local business incubator.

In the years since its inception, the Red Stick Farmers Market has become a weekend destination and community gathering place for many in Baton Rouge. Beyond purchasing fresh locally grown produce and quality cuts of meat from area farmers, the Red Stick Farmers Market offers cooking demos, educational opportunities for kids through their Red Stick Sprouts program, and an arts market each month.

But according to Alvarez, some people are still hesitant to take part in the weekly market due to concerns about affordability and accessibility.

"I don't know where the myth started that it is more expensive," she said. "People see the farmer’s market as being for upper class, trendy foodies, but it’s not."

In 2010 BREADA received a grant from the USDA to implement a token program that would match SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients' money up to $10. The grant meant people with Louisiana Purchase cards would have more of an incentive to shop at the market, and it allowed BREADA to better serve the whole community. 

"It expanded what people thought about us," Alvarez said.

It also made a difference in the number of people shopping at the Red Stick Farmer's market.

Alvarez said that when she first started at BREADA, only three to five percent of people nationally shopped at farmer's markets. Now, that number has increased to 10 percent nationally. 

“The trend has finally hit the South," she said. "Hopefully we are just at the precipice of making it grow here. It’s a trend that doesn’t go away."

The farm-to-table scene in Baton Rouge is still shadowed by that of New Orleans, Alvarez said, where tourists are more willing to pay a higher price for cuisine prepared using farm fresh ingredients. 

Though she has seen an increase in Baton Rouge-based chefs' demand for local produce, she admits that most consumers are not demanding local, seasonal produce. 

"Here, the restaurants are up against a lot of chain restaurants," Alvarez said. "Generally, the restaurants who are local have to make a bottom line."

Part of BREADA's mission, and part of Alvarez's role as Executive Director, is to implement programs to people in the city about the seasonality of produce and the importance of choosing "real foods.

"Once you start choosing to eat locally, the freshness, the difference, the nutritional value is so much higher than most people realize," Avarez said. "It’s almost addictive."