Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mason Farmers Market: “Where Innovation Meets Tradition”

By Nya Jackson
Mason’s prospective students webpage proudly boasts that George Mason University is an institution “Where Innovation Meets Tradition”. As a student at Mason for three years I have found this statement to be true, which is why it’s saddening that the Mason’s Farmers Market has not returned and might not be returning next year either. Last fall, Smart Markets Inc., the premiere farmers' market in Northern Virginia, contracted with Mason to create the Mason Farmers' Market. It quickly became a popular alternative to Mason Dining as one of the few options available for students to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables and other foods.
Mark Kraner, Assistant Vice President of University Life, has been working to ensure that the farmers' market returns to campus in the fall. Mr. Kraner says the reason Smart Markets did not return to campus this semester was due to “a few of the vendors that conflicted with the contract with Smart Markets”.
While it is important that all contracts are honored, the solution to the breach of contract is not to kick Smart Markets off campus but to create a better contract that allows the Mason Farmers' Market to become a welcomed tradition at Mason. According to Jean Janssen, founder of Smart Markets, “prepared food vendors are the attraction at campus markets because students want food that is already prepared, especially when many students don’t have kitchens in their dorms to prepare fresh, uncooked produce.”
The previous contract between Smart Markets and Mason last fall didn’t allow for vendors to cook food on site or serve foods that were offered for immediate consumption and current talks about not having prepared food vendors will result in a market that isn’t attractive to students or potential vendors. "Mason left a lot of vendors stranded without income when they kicked us off campus after the fall semester and many of them are not willing to come back unless we are confident we will be here year-round” says Ms. Janssen who is concerned about ensuring all of her vendors have a stable market to sell their produce.
According to Derek Luhowiak, part owner of LocalSixFortySeven, a street cart owned by him and his wife, who source all the ingredients locally and cook everything to order, the university receives approximately 15% of sales from Sodexo and “of course we could not compete with Sodexo”. Derek went on to say “I was under the impression that universities were a place of higher learning and free thinking, a place where ideas were created. Not anymore; it’s all business and money.”
Upset vendors aren’t the only frustrated group Mason has to deal with, students are upset as well. “If the market doesn't come back I will lose faith in the university's sense of responsibility towards its students" says Kyleigh Purks, creator of the 'Rescue the Mason Farmers' Market’ Facebook group.
The question becomes: What is a market worth? According to Janssen and her vendors the combined revenue from the three prepared food vendors in the market was in the neighborhood of $5200. That means that the most Mason lost to the market in the two months the market was on campus was 15% of $5200 or about $750 and that assumes that all of that $5200 would have otherwise been spent on university food services. It seems safe to say that $750 isn’t a tremendous loss, certainly not when you consider all of the tangible and intangible benefits of the market.
The market allows us to support our local economy. Normally only about 17 cents of every dollar that we spend at the grocery store goes to a farmer but with the farmers' market all of the money goes to the farmer. The Mason Farmers' Market allowed students, faculty, and staff to reduce their ecological footprint since locally-grown produce does not travel as far as food sold in grocery stores and served by Sodexo. The difference in mileage saves fossil fuels and puts Mason on the right track toward achieving climate neutrality, to which President Merten has committed the university by signing the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment.
While University Life wants the Masons Farmers' Market to return to campus next September and remain through the entire school year, it can’t happen with the contract they had with Smart Markets last fall. According to Ms. Janssen, “we need to have more control over who is in the market to make up for the losses we suffer in the winter months when the produce is no longer coming to market”.
If we stop thinking about how much money the University could be “losing” each week to the vendors we might begin to realize that the market does bring something to campus rather than take anything away. When will we see the value of the market and make the Mason Farmers Market another example of “Where Innovation Meets Tradition” to boast to prospective and current students alike?