Sylvanaqua Farms Ehakihet Chris Newman

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Update 6/22: Following the publication of this article, FRESHFARM Executive Director Hugo Mogollon penned a statement addressing how his organization will improve representation of BIPOC farmers and vendors, especially the Dupont Circle market. FRESHFARM says it added four black-owned businesses at Dupont Circle yesterday: Dodo FarmsFight JuiceSexy Vegie, and Puddin’. Mongollon also says FRESHFARM will clarify its vendor selection process, publicly share the regulations and guidelines by which vendors must adhere, and work to make sure the organization “is anti-racist in its direction, strategy, and structure.”

Chaia. Dolcezza. Soupergirl. Gordy’s Pickle Jar. Al Volo. Call Your Mother.

The owners of these popular D.C. food brands, all white, have had the opportunity to sell their products at the Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market. Some started as small, mobile businesses that blossomed into brick-and-mortar shops or popular consumer packaged goods. They were fortunate to secure spots at the nonprofit’s highest-grossing market, which has been around since 1997.

Not everyone has been afforded the same opportunity. Over the weekend, black farmers and food vendors used their social media platforms to share that FRESHFARM repeatedly denied them entry to their Dupont Circle market, despite having proven concepts and loyal followings at FRESHFARM’s other markets throughout the city. Forbesbroke the story about the alleged discrimination on Monday.

Given that history with the nonprofit, Puddin’chef and ownerToyin Alli was shocked when she saw her business included in a FRESHFARM Instagram post recommending 17 black-owned businesses to support at their markets. There are almost 200 merchants listed on the FRESHFARM website. “Why is it that DC is 49% black but the representation of black people at the market is less than 1%? Please don’t use Puddin’ as a ‘token’ because #blm is trending,” she wrote on Instagram. 

Because farmers markets are ideal places to launch a business as they require little capital, shutting black businesses out of the city’s most visible and lucrative markets can hinder their future growth. Alli asks, “If we can’t have a seat at the table, how are we supposed to move forward? What did I lose out on because I wasn’t a part of Dupont Circle?” 

In response to these concerns, a spokesperson for the nonprofit tells City Paper, “We know that racism is deeply embedded in our food system, and we recognize that FRESHFARM is part of that system and needs to do the conscious work of changing the way we operate.” 

“Vendors unhappy with the selection process have the right to perceive their exclusion as race related. We see it as process related,” they continued. 

But Alli and other FRESHFARM farmers and food vendors, who say they have been shut out of Dupont Circle, want to see FRESHFARM make meaningful changes to improve inclusivity immediately. City Paper asked them for recommendations and will follow up with the nonprofit later this summer to see if they’ve made any moves. The organization recently merged with Community Foodworks and appointed a new executive director, Hugo Mogollon,earlier this year. 

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Transparency is Alli’s biggest ask. She wants FRESHFARM to clearly spell out its selection process for hot markets like Dupont Circle going forwardand she wants the nonprofit to provide a postmortem on why she was repeatedly turned down in the past so she can have closure. “It’s not fair that we don’t get to know what happened,” she says.

Alli says she was made to believe that as long as vendors pay their dues on time and prove to have consistently strong sales at markets, they’re legitimate contenders for expanding their reach to other FRESHFARM markets, especially if there are no similar concepts already in place. She’s been selling shrimp ‘n grits and po’boys at the White House market for seven years. 

“During that time I’ve seen vendors who come in after us, as recently as two years ago, get into Dupont Circle,” Alli says. “When you start looking at it, it’s all white people. What is it about our business? What is it about us? It’s a punch in the gut when you stand in line for years and someone gets to walk up and cut the line.” 

Mogollon explains that each market is different. White House and CityCenterDC are focused on prepared foods for downtown workers on lunch breaks, while Dupont Circle has always been dedicated to farmers selling agricultural products. He says 80 percent of sales at Dupont Circle are fruits and vegetables, compared to 13 percent at the White House. That shapes who gets a space. “We have very few slots open, if any during the year,” he says about the Dupont Circle  market. “We’ve had 10 vendors of color either popping up or permanent since 2017.” 

When determining the farmer and vendor make-up in Dupont Circle, Mogollon says they first look to bring back returning businesses with followings. Then they give preference to food producers who source from local farms to make products like bread. Only then do they seek to add to their line-up of prepared foods they call concessions. 

“I think they’ve been excluded because of how the market operates,” Mongollon says, referring to black producers of prepared food. “Let’s say we have a regulation that says 80 percent of your product needs to be locally sourced—for a small business that’s difficult to reach. In this case, because of the way we created the rule, we’ve excluded vendors. We want to add diversity and might need to make incentives or exceptions or play a role in connecting these businesses with suppliers.” 

When it comes to why there aren’t more black farmers, Mogollon says: “If we want to find black farmers—I don’t think they’re going to apply to Dupont Circle. Few have access to land, that is a problem. It’s more about systemic exclusion. That’s one thing. We should be more proactive looking for them.” 

Alli’s other big ask is for FRESHFARM to diversify its board, staff, and neighborhoods it serves. The nonprofit offers three pick-up points known as Pop-Up Food Hubs in Wards 7 and 8, but none of them compare to the full-scale markets in the rest of the city.

Mogollon justifies keeping FRESHFARM’s presence in Wards 7 and 8 limited because of what he calls “limited purchasing power” of the residents who live there. “I could have 20 vendors there and in three weeks nobody will come back,” he says. With the Pop-Up Food Hubs, FRESHFARM purchases food from farmers and then distributes them at Kenilworth Rec Center, Minnesota Avenue NE, and Cesar Chavez with the help of partner institutions. 

FRESHFARM would not disclose to City Paper how many of its 26 board members identify as BIPOC. (On the staff level, Mogollon is hispanic and Deputy Director Nony Dutton is half black.) They both called Alli after her initial Instagram post.

“Under Hugo’s guidance, we have sharpened our focus on increasing diversity, which is a major priority for both the staff and the board,” FRESHFARM said in its statement. “COVID-19 has forced us to pivot our market and program operations over the past three months to focus on emergency response in order to keep markets open safely, and significantly expand delivering food to families in need through our Pop-Up Food Hub. This work has delayed our goal of making significant changes to do better by our farmers and producers.” 

JC Clark of Capitol Kettle Corn and his wife, Eee Arenas of Lemonade Love, also want immediate change. Clark was part of the opening cast when FRESHFARM’s White House market debuted at the end of 2009. He’s been trying for a decade to get into Dupont Circle together with his wife, who started her business with her sister about five years ago. 

“Managers have told us it’s because our popcorn is ‘carnival food,’” Clark says. FRESHFARM would not comment on this accusation. Clark and Arenas also have a theory that FRESHFARM won’t let them pop-up in Dupont Circle because they would “be so popular they would be forced to keep them.” 

“It has to be a race issue,” Arenas says. “I see nothing else. I hate to go there, but that’s what it is.” She wants them to adjust their definition of diversity, which she says is limited to having women represented. “In general there are a lot of white women who work for them. I want to know exactly what the make-up is with management and how they’re making these decisions.” 

They echo Alli’s concerns that being shut out of Dupont Circle has hindered their trajectories. “We missed out on growth because we didn’t have the opportunity for more exposure,” Arenas says. “We missed out monetarily.” Clark adds, “FRESHFARM has put us on the map—we’ve been able to expand. But they’re stifling us too.” 

Chris Newmanof Sylvanaqua Farmsdoesn’t place as much weight in FRESHFARM altering the make-up of its leadership. “Let’s cut out the middle man,” he says. “Just open up more spots for black and indigenous people.” He sells eggs, pasture-raised chicken, forest-raised pork, and grass-fed beef at FRESHFARM markets in Crystal City and Rosslyn, where he says he barely breaks even. Newman is the ehakihet of Sylvanaqua Farms, which is a Lenape term for land protector and farmer.

He’s disappointed that no one at FRESHFARM could see the glaring lack of representation at Dupont Circle in particular. “Somebody had to look around and say, there’s 90 percent white farmers here and there’s something wrong with that,” he says. “A lot of white people have a blind spot where they walk into a room where there’s nothing but white people and they don’t see anything wrong.”

To begin remedying the lack of BIPOC representation in Dupont Circle, Newman recommends FRESHFARM immediately make available two standing slots for people of color. “I don’t know what they’re afraid will happen if they expand the market and include black people,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to engage with a customer base that’s categorically ignored … I’ll bring customers. I’m an established business at this point. We’re helping you as much as you’re helping us.” 

Then there are BIPOC farmers and food vendors who can’t break into FRESHFARM at all. Chef Ali Ramadan makes hummus, baba ganoush, kebabs, and falafel under his food business, Abu Layla. He was invited to set up at a farmers market co-organized by FRESHFARM at The Parks at Walter Reed in 2018. “People kept coming every weekend to buy all of my stuff,” he says. “It was very successful and I was looking forward to joining again. But they didn’t contact me.” 

Ramadan says he’s applied to vend at FRESHFARM markets three times. Each time he applies to two of the nonprofit’s markets. He never hears back. “I’m disappointed,” he says. “I was hoping this would be easy. It’s really hard.” 

The Sudanese chef has traveled the world. He’s cooked in Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland, and Thailand. “I joined farmers markets in Thailand—the world capital of street food!” he says. “I made it there. People love my dips. You can imagine if I got the chance in D.C. where I would be now.”