Wellness Wednesday Farmers Market going strong in year seven

When Elizabeth Churchill, administrative coordinator of Outpatient Care Services, joined the Employee Wellness Committee in 2006, she wanted to provide employees, patients, and visitors easy access to local, organically grown produce. Her interest led to the Wellness Wednesdays Farmers Market, and in year seven the market is going strong in the lobby of the N.C. Children’s Hospital.

Wellness Wednesday Farmers Market going strong in year seven click to enlarge Elizabeth Churchill and Karen McAdams setting up before the market opens.
Wellness Wednesday Farmers Market going strong in year seven click to enlarge Produce and flowers at the Wellness Wednesdays Farmers Market.

by Zach Read - zread@unch.unc.edu

On Wednesday mornings from May through September, Elizabeth Churchill, Chair of the Healthy Heels Employee Wellness Committee, helps set up the Wellness Wednesdays Farmers Market amid the usual midweek foot traffic that passes through the lobby of the Children’s Hospital.

She coordinates with valet services as farmers park their vehicles to unload their produce, assists farmers in setting up their stands, and prepares information for passersby and customers who are interested in learning more about the market and other events and initiatives of the Healthy Heels program.

The ritual has become one of her favorite parts of the week. But Churchill isn’t the only person at UNC Hospitals who enjoys her Wednesdays; the market is popular with patients and visitors as well—so popular, in fact, that patients have told Churchill they schedule appointments around market hours in order to purchase produce and flowers.

And how do employees feel about it? Each April at the Benefits Fair, concerned employees ask Churchill if the market will open again in May.

“Every single employee that comes by the Healthy Heels table at the Benefits Fair asks me when the market is starting,” says Churchill, laughing. “They want to confirm that we’re running it again. They’re just so worried that one year we’re going to say that we couldn’t do it. I honestly believe there would be an uproar if we discontinued the market.”

Workplace farmers markets have become increasingly common in the United States. Federal agencies are now encouraged to promote a culture of wellness and improve healthy food on site by making produce available to employees. At UNC Hospitals, employees appreciate the accessibility to local fruits and vegetables, which saves them time shopping, helps them eat healthfully, and allows them to support local farms.

Rebecca Wellborn has been a devotee of the market since arriving as an RN in pediatrics two and a half years ago.

“It’s great to do my grocery shopping right here,” says Wellborn. “It saves me time. My husband and I also try to give our money to local farmers. So at the same time I’m buying good, healthy produce, I’m supporting local farmers….And this is a good model for our patients and for wellness, because food is medicine.”

Customer appreciation makes the experience of running it that much richer for Churchill.

“Hearing patients and visitors comment on how much they love it means a lot to me,” says Churchill.

This season the market is busier than ever, as employees, patients, and visitors flock to the lobby to shop. Even employees from other areas of the university visit the stands. Naturally, the busiest times are paydays, and strawberry season tends to draw in customers in larger numbers, as do the raffles Churchill runs once a month.

Although vendors have changed slightly over the years, a stable roster of local farms participates, including Eco Farm of Chapel Hill, McAdams Farm of Efland, Parker Farm & Vineyard of Hurdle Mills, Carrboro Tropicals of Chapel Hill, and PlowGirl Farm of Chapel Hill. With all the rain and flooding this year, some farms have lost tomatoes and melons, among other crops, so providing them with an extra venue in which they can sell has been helpful.

Karen McAdams of McAdams Farm has been participating in the farmers market since its opening. She has found the market beneficial in multiple ways.

“The first thing that attracted us to this opportunity was that we were looking for somewhere to sell vegetables, because in the end, we’re looking to make a living,” says McAdams. “Even though it’s nice to look at the produce out in the field, you have to market them. Liz and others who’ve started and continued this wellness initiative have been very dedicated to helping us, and we hope that we’re able to help employees and patients.”

Sally Jo Slusher of PlowGirl Farm, a recently added vendor to the market, sells her flowers each Wednesday.

“At first I was a little apprehensive about selling at a hospital,” says Slusher. “I didn’t know what to expect. But I’ve looked at it in a very positive way. I see little children come through here and they’ll look at my flowers, and they’ll smile. And I think to myself, ‘Okay, I made a difference today for somebody. I’ve been a good distraction for a patient, or someone visiting a patient.’ You have to approach it like that.”

The Wellness Wednesdays Farmers Market opened in the Spring of 2007. Although it wasn’t the first hospital to host a farmers market on its grounds, it beat many noted hospitals by a couple of years, including Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, UCSF Medical Center, and the Vanderbilt Medical Center, among others. And it is one of the few indoor markets in the area, which means it’s open rain or shine.

Churchill admits that when she received clearance to move forward with opening the market, she didn’t realize how much of a challenge it would be and how much work it would entail. But she sought out assistance from co-op extension programs in Orange and Chatham Counties to help identify farms that would be interested in selling goods at the hospital and received guidance from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, which suggested the appropriate number of vendors necessary to serve UNC Hospitals’ employee population.

The challenge of running the market and the appreciation of those who use it have made the experience rewarding for Churchill, and she doesn’t anticipate stopping any time soon.

“This market is like my child,” she laughs. “I’ve helped raise it, and it makes me so happy to see people enjoying it!”

The Wellness Wednesdays Farmers Market is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays. It runs from early May to late September. For more information on the market, the farms, and the Wellness Program, click here.