REAL Talks Episode 5 - Intentionality in the DEI Process: A Conversation with Farmers Market Coalition

Author: , Andrea Weiss, and Lindsay Mensch

For episode 5 of REAL Talks, we talked with Farmers Market Coalition, a core partner of the Nutrition Incentive Hub providing farm direct technical assistance to nutrition incentive grantees and practitioners.

Reaching for Equity in All Lives podcast cover art includes a graphic of a green tomato with a photo of a young girl cooking superimposed inside.

What really stood out for us in this conversation is this interplay between the organization's core identity and intentionality as Farmers Market Coalition described their commitment to prioritizing sustainability and not rushing their organization's DEI process.

To learn more about Farmers Market Coalition, visit

Mentioned in this episode: The Anti-Racist Farmers Market Toolkit

Episode 5 Transcript

Kolia Souza: Welcome to episode five of REAL Talks, Reaching for Equity in All Lives. I'm Kolia Souza, Food System Equity and Advocacy Specialist with Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems.

Andrea Weiss: And my name is Andrea Weiss. I'm Communications Director at MSU Center for Regional Food Systems.

Kolia Souza: And we’re your hosts for this podcast. For this episode of REAL Talks, we talked with Farmers Market Coalition, a core partner of the Nutrition Incentive Hub providing farm direct technical assistance to nutrition incentive grantees and practitioners.

Andrea Weiss: And here’s a little bit of background about Farmers Market Coalition for our listeners: They’re driven by three complementary goals, their “triple bottom line,” which centers on farmers, consumers, and communities. Farmers earn fair prices for the fruits of their labor by selling directly to consumers - and consumers gain access to fresh, nutritious, local produce while communities regain a figurative “town square,” experiencing many of the positive outcomes of foot traffic and animated public space.

Kolia Souza: What really stood out for me in talking with Farmers Market Coalition – and I think is captured in the essence of their triple bottom line – is this interplay between core identity and intentionality.

Andrea Weiss: Yes, I heard that, too – especially as they described their commitment to prioritizing sustainability and not rushing their organization's DEI process. Something that stood out to me was the value Farmers Market Coalition found in working with an external consultant in their internal DEI and listening process. As some of our listeners may recall, working with an external consultant was something that our friends at Mid-America Regional Council had not done yet but highly recommended based on their experiences.

Kolia Souza: So, as we jump into this interview, I’ll note for our listeners that you may hear a little bit of background noise during certain parts of the interview, but nonetheless, the message about diversity, equity, and inclusion practice comes through just as strong.

Andrea Weiss: Okay, let's meet our guests!

Willa Sheikh: Hi, I'm Willa Sheikh and I am the Deputy Director here at the National Farmers Market Coalition. I use she/her pronouns. We are a remote team with staff based all over the country. And I am calling in from Lenape land on the East Coast today. Good to be here with you.

Ben Feldman: Yeah, thanks for having us. My name is Ben Feldman. I'm the Executive Director here at the National Farmers Market Coalition. I use he/him pronouns. And I'm calling in from Lisjan/Ohlone territory, also known as Albany, California.

Kolia Souza: Ben and Willa, could you talk a little more about Farmers Market Coalition and priorities, both as an organization and within your organizational roles?

Ben Feldman: Farmers Market Coalition, as you described, our mission is to strengthen farmers markets for the benefit of farmers, shoppers and communities. And we really have a strong focus on the role of the farmers market operator. This is a role that's often unseen or underappreciated within the food system, and yet farmers market operators, the organizations and individuals who plan, organize, and manage farmers markets, are really responsible for facilitating really significant outcomes for their communities: billions of dollars in food sales each year, hundreds of millions of dollars in food assistance programs.

And as you described, that figurative town square, where the farmers market is a place where people from urban environments, rural environments, are coming together and sharing an experience over food and agriculture. And it's really a place where people come together in a situation that we don't see a lot in modern America.

Willa Sheikh: And to add to that, I would also include that we provide opportunities to build the network and capacity of market operators and their partners, so that they can find expertise that they need to design and implement the programs and operations that they would like to see within their communities.

We also focus a lot on providing structured resource creation and that helps facilitate relationship building within our communities of practice. So, they can all get to know each other, share best practices, and really work together. And lastly, providing an advocacy voice, a space where we can share innovations, build industry knowledge, and also generally increase the capacity across the sector.

Kolia Souza: I think that's a great segue into talking more about the role of diversity, equity and inclusion within Farmers Market Coalition. Can you tell us about a memorable moment in your organization's journey, maybe a success or something that was unexpected?

Ben Feldman: So, the one that really sticks out in my mind is we completed our strategic plan in 2019, and we felt pretty good about it. And it was certainly a quick process of six to eight months, and during which we ran through that strategic planning process. And we got to the end of it, and there's a lot about our strategic plan that is really valuable and wonderful, but after having completed it, myself and a couple of our board members were talking. And we realized that really, despite having put all that time and intention into planning for the organization, really, very little mention of racial equity within that plan. And that carried forward a legacy where prior to that point, FMC, we didn't really name equity as the basis for our work, even in cases where that may be part of the driving factor.

And so, it was really eye-opening to realize that we'd gone through this strategic planning process and we really missed the opportunity to address racial equity in the way that it needed to be. And that was really the beginning of what is our current journey towards making our organization an anti-racist organization and really delving into diversity, equity, inclusion work, and racial equity work in a much more meaningful and intentional way.

Kolia Souza: Leading internal discussions around DEI and furthermore, translating that into organizational practice and capturing that in strategic plans can be a challenge. Like with most practice, it's a skill, a capacity to be built up over time and continuously evolving. Even with the Nutrition Incentive Hub, we've brought in facilitators to guide us through that process. What was the process approach for Farmers Market Coalition?

Ben Feldman: Yeah, it's probably worth mentioning that we did our strategic planning process without an outside facilitator, and then that was a decision that was made, it was about the state of our organizational resources at that point. And we haven't gone back and done a full strategic planning process or recreated a full strategic plan. And what we are in the process of doing is working with that consultant to develop what our consultant, Chad Smith, describes as a racial equity and learning plan, a real plan.

And the reason that we wanted to work in particular with this consultant is because of the approach of really identifying where we are as an organization, learning about our organization, and starting with a very listening-oriented approach. And that, for us, felt like it made a lot of sense in terms of really taking the time to listen, to be thoughtful about our organization.

And certainly, one of the big pieces in terms of why we opted to bring in an outside consultant is one, is about a resource capacity and focus. And the other was really about trying to break down some of the inherent power structures within an organization, and that bringing someone from the outside really helps to be able to do that. And ideally, if we've chosen the right consultant, which I think that we have, provide our staff with a great deal of comfort and being able to speak about what they see as really going on within our organization and the role that we play, the challenges that we face, that may not come up in our group dynamic, absent that outside facilitator.

Willa Sheikh: And also, hiring the consultant, I think, reassured everyone that we are truly committed to this work and that we're really, truly committed to however long it takes coming up with a structured plan that we can all use in our own work. So, that the work isn't just done in once-a-month meetings or anything like that, but it's really done through our day-to-day work, through everyone's job description, through our interactions with our partners and the communities that we're a part of. So, that's been really cool to watch.

Kolia Souza: Ben and Willa, you both mentioned intentionality in this work. That's something that's really important when we're talking about actively building a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Do you have any thoughts on some of the challenges to building intentionality into DEI practice?

Willa Sheikh: Sometimes it's really difficult to know where to begin a process or how to approach the work, especially when limited resources or the limited structures are in place. And so, from my experience, I've often heard people say things like, "Well, we just don't have the time or the resources in place to do this work." And I approach limitations like that by saying that, there's so much that can be done and just simply taking the first step of having the intention to do something is making progress towards becoming an anti-racist organization or person.

And so, I think that sometimes with grant-funded programs and things like that, it can be really difficult to know where to start and how to go about the process. And using FMC as an example, there was a lot of internal work that was being done, and the team had reached a place where they realized that they needed extra help, or extra resources, that they really needed an outsider to come in and help facilitate some of the conversations.

And so, we took an intentional step towards bringing on a consultant to help us further the work. And yeah, sometimes it just takes a moment to realize that you might need help getting to the next step or might need help with coming up with a plan. But really, it starts with the true commitment to saying, this is something that you want to do, and you're going to figure out how you're going to do it. And I'm happy to say that FMC has really figured that out. And I think a lot of that has to do with the facet that the team is just so open to going through this journey together and is really committed to modeling this for the entire sector. But definitely, making sure that we start with our organization, to make sure that we have the structures in place so that we can continue to do this work.

Ben Feldman: One of the pieces, you asked about what can be the barrier to that intentionality, and what I was thinking on is, this sense of urgency, both in terms of other work and this work as well, and this feeling of a need to move quickly. And obviously, that drives so much of our world. And the issues that we're trying to grapple when we deal with diversity, equity, inclusion, anti-racism, are large systemic challenges. And so, the need to be able to move at the appropriate speed, and to Willa's point, to make sure that we continue to be able to do this work, like showing up for six months or a year and then letting that work fall to the wayside, is not really going to get us where we want to be as an organization or achieve the change that we hope to see in the work that we do, in the food system that we work in, and in the larger world.

And so, that's been something that's been really present in my mind as we've been doing this work is, how do we really create a lasting structure that makes sure that this work is bigger than us as individuals? And that what we're doing is we are reshaping FMC as an organization in order to ensure that this becomes part of the fabric of the organization and that it's embedded in our systems, rather than a blip in our organization's history as we pursue other things. So, I think that's the piece that is most at the forefront of my mind as we're doing this work.

Kolia Souza: What is it that you are most excited about in terms of your DEI journey?

Willa Sheikh: I am excited to continue to work with Cad to create this real plan that will align with our strategic plan, and to really have the structured plan that will allow us to create our work plans, allow us to have more structure around the things that we're intentionally trying to work towards. And then, to also be able to do it as a group, to really know what we're working towards. I'm really excited about that.

For me, personally, it's been really energizing to be able to go through this experience with them, because there's just a lot of opportunity to talk about things as a group and to come up with a collaborative agenda on what's important to all of us.

Ben Feldman: Yeah. That real plan is definitely a big piece of what I'm excited about as well. Also, I get a lot of energy and a lot of inspiration from our staff. There is, as Willa pointed out, a great and strong commitment to this work among our staff. And then, the last thing is the field of farmers markets really is hungry for figuring out their role in terms of addressing racial equity, and there's definitely a ton of interest from the sector around anticipating the release of The Anti-Racist Toolkit from a working group. And that's also quite gratifying. I don't know that that would have been the case a few years ago, but I think that the sector is really interested and engaged. And certainly, the challenge for the working group in particular is going to be more about making sure there's enough capacity and resources to meet the needs of all of the interested markets.

Kolia Souza: Ben, Willa, thank you for bringing us along on your DEI journey.

Ben Feldman: Thank you.

Willa Sheikh: Thank you so much for having us.

Andrea Weiss: I feel encouraged by hearing how starting with small steps of setting DEI intentions helped Farmers Market Coalition build meaningful momentum, both within the Farmers Market Coalition's team, as well as with the services they provide to farmers markets across the country.

Kolia Souza: That buy-in is absolutely crucial to ensuring that diversity, equity, and inclusion doesn't become a checkbox or prescriptive. So often, I've heard organizations and community members share their experience of DEI becoming performative, or even a means of virtue signaling.

Andrea Weiss: For our listeners, virtue signaling means to express support for something in order to look good without having a deep commitment to it. It's kind of similar to other phrases that have been around for a while like, “do as I say, not as I do,” or, “all talk, no action.” Similarly, if there's action, but that action is focused on doing what we think others will want to see, instead of emerging from deep, lasting, individual and collective change, that might be considered performative. In other words, a performance in order to look good rather than more genuinely motivated.

Kolia Souza: Exactly. And the time that Farmers Market Coalition took to understand these bigger systems-based power dynamics, which of course, are complex, it served as both the basis for investment in their emerging DEI vision and plan, and generated the passionate commitment that's necessary to carry out what will likely be long-term initiatives.

Andrea Weiss: Thank you to Ben Feldman and Willa Sheikh of Farmers Market Coalition for sharing your stories with us. And you'll definitely want to tune in to our next episode, as we talk with Mark Edwards and Carolyn Huckabay of The Food Trust.

Kolia Souza: To dive deeper into this work, you can check out diversity, equity and inclusion resources like the Food Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion webinar series provided on the Nutrition Incentive Hub website

Andrea Weiss: You can find all Real Talks episodes on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, and Spotify. Please share this podcast and check out our other episodes. Real Talks is a podcast created by the Michigan State University, Center for Regional Food Systems. The series is hosted by Kolia Souza and Andrea Weiss and produced by Lindsay Mensch and Andrea Weiss. The podcast is supported by the Nutrition Incentive Program Training, Technical Assistance, Evaluation and Information Center, and Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program. Grant number 20197003030415, project accession number 1020863 from the USDA, National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

REAL Talks is a podcast created by the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems. The series is hosted by Kolia Souza and Andrea Weiss, and produced by Lindsay Mensch and Andrea Weiss. The podcast is supported by the Nutrition Incentive Program Training, Technical Assistance, Evaluation, and Information Center, and Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program, grant number 20197003030415, project accession number 1020863 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.