POP Clubs and the Power of Produce
Written onMay 26 , 2016
Imagine a world where small children race through your local farmers’ market from booth to booth, greeting farmers by name and asking relevant questions about the fresh produce they see on the tables. As they leave each booth, they’re munching fresh vegetables and madly scribbling notes about what they’ve just discovered.
Soon, other children follow and they form clusters around a vendor, asking questions and discussing the answers among themselves. Next we see parents and siblings involved, trailing the children, tasting, questioning, and having a good time, too. A true revolution.
This is already happening—at Vermont farmers’ markets that have instituted a Power of Produce (POP) Club. Although POP Club is for children 5 to 12 years old, everyone at the market is involved as they observe the fun, smile, nod, and ask, “What is going on here?” As a vendor at the Hartland Farmers’ Market, I direct them to the POP Club table and explain what this revolution is all about: real dietary change that is delicious, fresh, and local. No one wants to eat better if it is depriving, limiting, or boring, so at POP Club we influence children to eat fresh, local produce by making their market experience a discovery process with tasty rewards and fun along the way.
POP Club formats can vary, but ours in Hartland is a simple one. When children arrive at the market, they’re invited to join the POP Club. We have a small booth with a chalkboard sign. It’s free to all children. We have them enter the club by signing in on a passport that is kept at the market and stamped each time they come. They receive their own POP Club shopping bag, and at our club they’re given a five-question POP Quiz that functions as a scavenger hunt, moving them from produce vendor to produce vendor with questions to ask the farmers about the fresh produce they’re seeing at the market. In the questions they might have the farmers’ name. They might be asked to sample, or count, or touch, or taste. They might be directed to a special art station or planting station. They’re encouraged to collaborate with each other and share what they’re discovering.
When their quiz is finished, they bring it back to the POP Club booth and receive perhaps another experience or sample and then receive three POP Club dollars, which they can only spend on fresh produce. Since they’ve already had a positive interaction with the farmers, they’re empowered to speak to them and ask for what they want. Often their last POP Quiz question involves them thinking of their favorite ways to eat the vegetable in season that they’ve just sampled. I pre-print an easy recipe for them to take home to make with their families. Their parents are also engaged at this point and have questions and enthusiasm, as well. (Nothing like seeing your child chomp away at fresh produce to get a parent excited!)
I first heard about POP Clubs at a Vermont Farmers’ Market Association workshop in April 2015 and I was intrigued. POP Club started in 2011 at the Oregon City Farmers’ Market as just an idea with a sponsor, but it’s spread like wildfire since then. At that workshop I saw a YouTube video produced by Oregon City Market about their POP Club, and I became inspired to create one. By June 2015, I had our local Hartland Garden Club as a sponsor and an idea to center our club around a five-question POP Quiz. I had some POP Club market bags made by a local vendor, printed some POP Club produce money, and took a leap of faith. As a farmer in Vermont, I’ve had a longtime interest in getting children involved in eating good food and engaging in the local food system. I’ve volunteered in local Farm to School programs during the school year. But whenever the summer growing season has begun, I’ve seen a void. Here was the perfect activity.
I announced the creation of the POP Club on our town listserve and plunged in. By the end of the 2015 summer farmers’ market in our small Hartland community, we had 78 POP Club participants, many who came weekly. And the most common phrase I heard from parents was, “My kids beg to go to the market each week!” The next most common phrase was, “I could never get them to try that before!” The revolution begins with their positive exploration and true experiential education. It then spreads through families and the community. As the market season progresses, the 2 or 3 POP Club children at the first market becomes 5 or 6, then 10 or 12, then 20 or more. This is not fantasy.
Why is POP Club so effective? The simplicity of the program is key. Because children are empowered with their own shopping bags and their own produce money, they’re engaged and excited about the market. They’re busy with an experiential task with their peers. They’re the leaders in this game and it is fun for them to buzz around the market with a mission. They like to help newcomers make their way around the market, as well. They’re learning something new and are encouraged to taste—and to share with their peers and family—what they’ve just discovered. The questions on their quiz introduce them to the farmers by name and give them permission and priority to engage directly. The farmers are prepped to be on the lookout for the POP kids and to have seasonal offerings to taste. They also size and price those items in POP-friendly increments.
If you’re interested in starting a POP Club at your local farmers’ market, watch the 15-minute Oregon City Market video at youtube.com/watch?v=JkXZATbO3Pg. Also check out farmersmarketcoalition.org/programs/power-of-produce-pop/ to find support materials and more info!
Editor’s note: At least four other Vermont markets have a POP Club and half a dozen are planning one.