Toward a Stronger Local Food Economy

Writing about the people and places in Chatham County helps bond me to this community. Talking to leaders, men and women of conviction, with enough guts to take a risk, is what attracts me to this area.

One of those places is the Chatham Market Place (CM). In 2003 Tami Schwerin and Melissa Frey, principals among many, determined that Pittsboro would be a good place for a food co-op. They, and many other willing stalwarts labored to raise the capital, get a site and make it happen. For just over a million dollars they got the doors open in May 2006.

Like so many businesses, recent times have been lean and tough. The people at the Market Place remain undaunted. General Manager, Mary DeMare, hired in 2005, makes the case for the importance of a co-op in Chatham. “People tend to look at our food as a luxury item. From my perspective, food, what you put into your body, is going to determine your health. In our case, since we buy so much locally, sustainably and organically grown, it’s gonna determine the health of the planet around you, the water you drink, the air you breathe. Ultimately removing the additives, the chemical fillers, the non-food oils that they put into things, it’s going to increase your quality of life and your health. It shows in the shoppers that are sticking with us. That’s where they prioritize their money; in their health.”

The Market Place also gives the community a fiscal boost. Since opening, they’ve spent over $1million in Chatham; not counting payroll and taxes.

As a former employee of the Market Place, (I was the cheese buyer), I’ve seen from the inside how hard Mary and her managers work to source local products. To me that’s the best part about the CM. I’ve never eaten so much good, fresh, local food in my life. My hat’s off to our local farmers and CM for being the nexus of producer and customer.

One great example of local goodness is eggs. After eating eggs laid by happy, free range Piedmont chickens, I can’t go back to eating factory eggs. The yolks are dark and rich. This is another instance where DeMare can crow. “To know that egg was laid this morning, someone’s going to buy it today and have it for breakfast tomorrow. It’s so amazing that we can do this. We supply locally grown meat on the hot bar [buffet]. And it was happy meat before it was slaughtered, living like animals are supposed to live.”

I must note that as Mary warms to her subject, she gets a little misty, a bit choked up. I’ve never seen her passion like this.

CM inspects each farm before buying their produce. The local beef, chicken, and pork you buy from CM haven’t been fed hormones and antibiotics; and they haven’t been standing hip deep in their own filth like corporate grown animals. When you think of the people killed and sickened by contaminated food in this country each year, the Market Place looks even more appealing.

But survival all comes down to sales. Last year’s $2.7 million was the peak. DeMare demures, “I don’t know if we should print this but, we’ve been 8-10% below what we were last year at times.” Grocers usually live on a thin one to two percent margin at best anyway.

The reason I print that is because I want us all to see how badly this important local asset has been injured by the Recession. And yes, I am going to ask for some action on your part. If you don’t shop at the Market Place, please allocate just 1% of your grocery budget for them. If we make an investment in an anchor of the local economy, we’ll all be stronger for it. Supporting your neighbors who work hard to grow high quality food will build a local food economy as a hedge against uncertain times.

Like Mary says, “Buy your eggs from us. $2.69 a dozen and they’re the freshest eggs in town. You probably passed by that chicken on the way to the Marketplace.”

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