Sustainability: Public Health

An Interview with Danielle Schlobohm, Associate Director,
DowntownABQ MainStreet and Arts & Cultural District

Jonelle Ewbank, Shawna Brown, Danielle Schlobohm, and Reba Thomas at Robinson Park. Photo by Stephanie Cameron.

The Downtown Growers’ Market (DGM) was founded by a group of farmers organizing themselves to sell locally grown produce. The original location was in a lot at the old Caravan East. In 1996, the market moved to Robinson Park, with farmers lining up along Copper Avenue. Over the next twenty-six years, the market grew, adding management, music, artisans, and yoga, blossoming into the market we see today. The DGM is a program under DowntownABQ MainStreet and Arts & Cultural District, where Danielle Schlobohm is currently the associate director. She managed the DGM from 2019 to 2021.

This is the twenty-sixth year of the Downtown Growers’ Market. What are some of the biggest lessons the market has learned over the years?

Twenty-six years have brought lots of change, growth, and education. Organizing more than two hundred vendors and thirty markets a year, which include local bands, nonprofit and education booths, and yoga / body movement classes, requires a lot of attention to detail, time management, and patience. All of this would not be possible without dedicated staff who love and believe in what the market is offering. One of our biggest lessons has been to invest in these individuals. The market operates on a slim budget that is funded through vendor fees, grants, and sponsors. We are always walking the balance of offering affordable market access for vendors, covering the costs of operations, and paying our staff what they are worth, equal to the work they do for our community.

Public health has obviously been a major concern over the past two years, and pandemic-related safety precautions meant that certain initiatives, such as the market recycling and composting program, took a break. What is the status of such programs for 2022? How has the pandemic changed the market going forward?

As the DGM enters 2022, we are excited to bring back all the pieces of the market that were active prior to the pandemic, including our recycling and composting program. Recycling and composting at a public park that only provides trash bins has many challenges: Sorting stations need to be provided so that items go to the appropriate places. Staff or volunteers need to maintain stations so contamination doesn’t occur. Packaging materials for vendors is a very confusing world to navigate. One item says “biodegradable,” one item says “compostable,” one says “recyclable.” There is little to no regulation on this labeling, so it takes a lot of research to be knowledgeable about these items. This year the DGM will be hiring a part-time staff member to help us rebuild our market waste program.

The pandemic taught us the importance of focusing the economy on local suppliers and revealed how delicate our national food system is. Demand for food is more than what our local farmers can produce. As the market moves through this year and the years to come, we will continue to put effort into growing farmers, providing food access to everyone, and keeping money in the pockets of New Mexicans.

Yoga during the Downtown Growers’ Market. Photo courtesy of DGM.

In a wider sense of public health, how would you describe the health of the market at its quarter-century mark? How is the health of the market related to the greater health of downtown and our broader community of farmers, other vendors, and market-goers?

The DGM is an essential piece to the well-being of all the entities mentioned above. During the pandemic, it was the only “event” being permitted and bringing folks to the hard-hit downtown core. Opening day is seen as a welcome beacon of healthy activity, commerce, and engagement for the downtown businesses and local community. Area arts organizations often coordinate their own art markets around the DGM so they can benefit from residents and visitors coming downtown to shop. Endless connections, conversations, opportunities, and growth have come directly from farmers, vendors, customers, and community members coming together each week. Many food vendors and farmers who have been highlighted by edible are or were DGM vendors. We are looking forward to continuing and improving this market with the same positive energy as we start our next quarter century.

Describe a typical summer Saturday managing the market. When does the work day begin, and when does it end? What is the best part of the job? What’s the hardest part?

Saturday mornings start at sunrise. Market staff arrive around 6 am to set up the info booth, clean the park, help with setup, and navigate any number of concerns that may arise. Market starts at 8 am and ends at noon, and sees between five hundred and two thousand visitors each hour. Staff are usually done by 1 pm. Running a large farmers market is equal parts love and problem solving. The best part for me is discovering what is new and in-season each week. I can’t wait for peaches and the smells of fresh roasted chile! Some of the biggest challenges include navigating the beloved location that is Robinson Park. It’s a logistical puzzle in the heart of an urban city, but we strive to make improvements every year!

Do you have a favorite market moment?

Pets of the market! I love seeing all the animals that attend. We’ve seen everything from potbellied pigs, dwarf goats, and cats and rabbits in backpacks to bearded dragons, snakes, parrots on shoulders, and endless happy dogs. My other favorite moment is getting home and taking out all of the treasures I’ve found each week that are grown and created with care by folks that I respect and know personally. Everything tastes better that way!

What does the vision for the market in 2030 look like? How do we get there?

The market is bursting at the seams! We are taking serious steps to offer a year-round market. As that happens, we are also prioritizing the needs of our local farmers, small food producers, and artists. We are working to provide more vending opportunities, partnerships for commercial kitchen space, support systems to assist farmers in production growth, and other sales opportunities for local businesses. While doing all of this, we are keeping in mind the barriers and food insecurity that many people face and building out plans and partnerships to continue increasing access to local food. We get there with the continued support of our amazing community and collaborations with people who share our goals. Working together makes us stronger and will create the meaningful impacts our communities deserve.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with edible readers?

Come out to the market! Stay engaged in your community, continue to educate yourself, and get involved any way you can. Food is not only nourishment but also art, culture, life, and love.

I also want to give a special thanks to DowntownABQ MainStreet director Lola Bird for founding the organization and navigating ten years of the DGM program; to market manager Shawna Brown, who is leading the market into new growth; and to staff members Jonelle Ewbank and Reba Thomas, who keep the nuts and bolts from getting too loose. And thanks to all the previous managers, as well as all the volunteers, interns, vendors, and community members who have assisted in the growth of Albuquerque’s longest-running farmers market. We couldn’t do it without you!