If you've ever enjoyed strolling through the Grant Park or East Atlanta Village farmers markets, you can direct your "job well done" to manager Katie Hayes. For Hayes, the farmers markets she oversees are stepping stones in her ambitious master plan to strengthen Atlanta through access to healthy local foods. She's also the founding executive director of Community Farmers Markets, a nonprofit that runs the two farmers markets, and increasingly works to help create more connected communities through the pathway of local foods.
A native Atlantan with family going back eight generations here, the 29-year-old Hayes didn't always see the city as the place she would make her mark. She left Atlanta to study liberal arts with a focus on localization vs. globalization at NYU, and ended up working for National Geographic in Washington, D.C. But when Hayes came home for a visit, she realized Atlanta had become a "rapidly changing city, from what was happening with the arts and music, to things like the urban farm movement. I got really excited," she says.
An avid home gardener with generations of farmers on both sides of the family, Hayes immersed herself in garden education upon her return to Atlanta in 2009. She helped expand the Coan Middle School garden on Edgewood Avenue into a school farm, and began regularly visiting the quirky East Atlanta Village Farmers Market. "It became the highlight of my week," Hayes says. "I got to know the vendors and it just felt like a place that I wanted to spend my time."
As the market grew, the need to expand grew along with it. Together, Hayes, EAVFM founder Jonathan Tescher, local food advocate Judith Winfrey, and other leaders in the local food movement founded Community Farmers Markets, which in turn partnered with Grant Park residents to start the Grant Park Farmers Market in 2011. Hayes is most fond of the community-focused aspect of the markets she and CFM oversee. "It really isn't just a place where you go grocery shopping, it's a place where you go to spend Sunday morning with your neighbors and get to know people," she says.
Through her work at CFM, Hayes continues to build interest and educate locals about healthy eating through urban farming and food stamp incentives. The organization partners with national nonprofit Wholesome Wave, which aims to increase access to healthy food for families enrolled in the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by doubling the value of each benefit dollar at participating farmers markets. Another CFM outreach program offers free cooking classes at local community centers to demonstrate how preparing local food can be easy and affordable. "A lot of people have forgotten or lost how to cook healthy affordable meals, and we can address that in many ways," Hayes says.
With both markets up and running, Hayes feels her focus shifting. "Now we need to figure out how to really make sure that [the local food movement] is not just a trend, that this will be something sustainable for the long-term," she says. Over the next year, CFM will focus on helping local entrepreneurs start and run community-minded food ventures through better training for farmers, grant writing workshops, and business planning.
At the root of it all, Hayes is dedicated to reconnecting people with their food: "It's about making a conscious choice to buy from farmers and vendors you know, supporting small businesses in your neighborhood, meeting your neighbors. It's all about community."