Inland Northwest Farmers’ Markets: A Summer Staple of Spokane

Farmers’ markets have become a summer staple of Spokane. One organization is changing the way we think about farmers’ markets and the many benefits these markets can have on our community.

The Inland Northwest Farmers Market Association (INFMA), established in 2017, is a collective of neighborhood farmers’ markets serving the Greater Spokane area. INFMA saw the value of their nine individual market’s in unique placements around Spokane, but also recognized that the market’s would be stronger together. In the fall of 2016, they came together as a group to share best practices. I had the pleasure of speaking with Lisette Alent, executive director of INFMA, about one of the programs WHWF supports, the Kids Eating Right-Nutrition and Exercise for Life (KERNEL) program which is integrated into six of the nine market’s in Spokane.

The KERNEL program is a booth set up at the market’s which welcomes children to learn more about healthy eating and exercise. Run entirely by volunteers, the booth offers new activities each week. The activities always center around STEM (science, technology, engineering, or math). When a child completes an activity, they are given a $2 food voucher they can use to buy fresh food, produce or fruits from one of the many stands, or save up their vouchers each week to buy a larger purchase at the end of the season.

Lisette said the KERNEL program has been growing rapidly, and has also gained greater significance than they originally thought possible. Out of the 1800 kids in Spokane and Steven’s County who participated last year, over 60% are children from low income families. Many of these families don’t have the means to consistently purchase fresh, healthy foods. The KERNEL program has helped normalize healthy eating on a consistent, weekly basis.

Kids want to come back each week and try new foods, get new recipes, and complete the learning activities to use their $2 vouchers at the market. KERNEL has also brought many low income families to the market, specifically for their kids to participate, who typically wouldn’t attend the market. “It has been a great tool for drawing families into the market and from there they can be involved in cooking demos and learn so much about healthy eating”, said Lisette.

In fact, 90% of families surveyed said that they increased physical activity, healthy eating, and interest in both of those areas. KERNEL started out as a fun activity for kids at the market’s, and is now turning into a health promotion program to help combat childhood obesity and teach kids about healthy behaviors and lifestyles. KERNEL is even starting to partner with local health insurance companies to take things to a grander scale.

The program is especially unique because it is offered where and when kids need it the most. Throughout the summer, when kids aren’t in school, they lose two to three months of academic skills. KERNEL is a consistent way to build new skills each week, all while eating healthy and staying active. “It takes a village to raise a child”, said Lisette, and this program has truly embodied that mentality.

Lisette has big goals moving forward and hopes to take KERNEL to a much larger scale. Right now, when you participate in KERNEL, you fill out a small notecard which is filed away at the farmer’s market you attend. “It is an old school system, and it has worked great on a smaller scale, but it’s growing so much and so quickly”, mentioned Lisette.

KERNEL plans to install electronic kiosks at the market’s where families can check in. This way, they will be able to track and measure the impact of the program using electronic tools. In the future, they also plan on creating an app where families can check in and track healthy eating and physical activity throughout the week. KERNEL has already received calls from farmers markets across the nation hoping to implement the program.

Kids eating right goes far beyond just learning how to change your habits.  A healthy diet means normal childhood growth and development, stronger immune function, and better brain function. Stronger immune function can mean fewer bugs like colds and the flu. Better brain function makes kids more likely to focus easily and perform well in school. The physical, emotional, and mental benefits of healthy eating are endless.

Lisette has several stories of specific kids and families who benefited greatly from KERNEL last year. “One story I recall, was at the Hillyard Farmers’ Market. A mother, recently widowed, and her two children were participating. The mother was recently back to work and they had to take the bus each week to come to the market. They would make it just before the market closed at 6pm, and sometimes wouldn’t make it in time. The market manager started leaving the market open an extra 30 minutes so that the family would have time to participate in KERNEL”, explained Lisette.

She described how one of the activities was to draw what you ate for dinner the night before on a paper plate. One of this woman’s children drew vegetables and potatoes. The mom looked down at her child and said, “Is that really what we ate?”, knowing that it wasn’t what they had for dinner. Her child responded, “No, that isn’t what we had.”  The mom, very hesitant, told the market manager that all they had to eat that week was cereal. Their strict budget didn’t allow for anything else. That day, many of the vendors threw in some extra fruits and veggies for the kids to take home.

Lisette also mentioned a story about a group of boys who usually hung around the market, but were notorious for getting into trouble and graffiti. However, the young group of boys heard about KERNEL and how you got $2 vouchers to buy fresh food. They came to the market one day, and as they approached, the market manager was nervous they were there to cause trouble. However, they walked right up to the KERNEL booth, participated in the activities for weeks on end, and saved up their vouchers to buy a large amount of apples at the end of the season.

KERNEL has grown and transformed into something benefitting Spokane’s neighborhoods and families. The INWFA market’s will begin throughout the upcoming week. Click here to see the 2019 farmers market schedule.

If you are interested in getting involved, KERNEL is always looking for more volunteers to help at their booths. Click here to sign up today!

Heather Hamlin


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