For more information on places to buy local food, visit www.growchattanooga.org
1st Tennessee Pavilion, 1826 Reggie White Blvd.
Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Main Street Farmers Market
325 E. Main St.
Wednesday 4-6 p.m.
Brainerd Farmers Market
Grace Episcopal Church, 20 Belvoir Road
Saturday 10 a.m.-noon
Signal Mountain Farmers Market
Bachman Center, 2815 Anderson Pike
Thursday 4-6:30 p.m.
St. Alban's Hixson Farmers Market
St. Alban's Episcopal Church, 7514 Hixson Pike
Tuesday 5-7 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
Catoosa County Courthouse, 877 LaFayette St.
Saturday 8-11 a.m.
Several days a week, the Lowe family makes the hour drive to Chattanooga from their farm in Rhea County, Tenn., to set up at local farmers markets, selling summer squash, vine-ripened tomatoes and various kinds of peppers.
"The volume of customers makes the drive worth it," said Bryan Lowe, between helping customers select the freshest green beans in the parking lot at Grace Episcopal Church in Brainerd.
Despite the threatening rain clouds, dozens of people wandered through the tents, chatting with friends and picking up a dozen fresh eggs and a loaf of bread.
People involved in promoting local food in Chattanooga say they are seeing more people who choose to shop for locally grown food or eat at restaurants that use local food. A food guide listing small local farms that deliver fresh food to Chattanooga has grown more than 50 percent in the last two years, with similar increases in farmers markets and community gardens, said Jeff Pfitzer, executive director of Gaining Ground, which was launched in 2010 to help encourage production and use of locally grown food.
"The biggest successes in our community have come out of an increased awareness and dedication that it truly takes all of us to succeed at this work and that we must work together -- farmers, gardeners, consumers, chefs, restaurants, farmers markets, grocers and others -- if we are going to increase the amount of fresh, healthy, locally grown food in our community," Pfitzer said.
Gaining Ground began with a grant from the Benwood Foundation that was to provide funding for three years. So far, Gaining Ground has spent more than $2 million on grants to area organizations for public awareness campaigns and administrative costs.
With the three-year mark coming up next year, Pfitzer said there are no short-term plans to end the initiative. The Benwood Foundation will take a look at longer-term strategies next year to decide how much longer Gaining Ground will continue, he said.
There are now five farmers markets in Chattanooga, Hixson, Signal Mountain and Brainerd. The biggest market, Chattanooga Market in downtown Chattanooga, opened a market in Ringgold in June and is considering opening one in the Collegedale/Ooltewah area.
Other markets are not so typical -- BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee has a market every Thursday afternoon at its headquarters on Cameron Hill, with more than a dozen vendors coming to sell local veggies, meats and eggs to employees as they head home.
Chris Thomas, executive director at the Chattanooga Market, said growth there has been overwhelming. The market went from $800,000 in sales in 2007 to $2.2 million last year, and about 40 percent of that is agricultural products, he said.
"It's just phenomenal," Thomas said.
While more than half the market's sales are not from fresh fruits, vegetables and local meats, Thomas said those products drive all sales because people come in for food every week and see what else the market offers.
Many people shopping at the markets give them a resounding thumbs up, saying they like the variety of the products, they like the fact that they are conveniently scattered throughout the city and they like having fresh, local choices.
"It's so convenient -- you just grab something on your way out," said Anne Brunasso, who usually stops at the BlueCross market every week.
"You are buying from your neighbors," said Kathleen Russell, at the Brainerd market.
Even in a grueling hot day on East Main Street, business was brisk as customers walked out with bags of fresh food. That market moved this year to a new location, but manager Bonnie Baranowski said business has increased.
The local markets -- especially the smaller ones -- still have their challenges.
Growing fresh vegetables and selling them in farmers markets can be difficult, said Lowe, the Rhea County farmer. Farmers never know how many customers will show up or what vegetables will sell the best on any given week. At the smaller markets around Chattanooga, vendors sometimes have far more products than they can sell in a day.
Pfitzer said the biggest challenge for Gaining Ground has been to increase the awareness about the importance of fresh, locally grown food in building a health community, then translating that awareness into action -- such as shopping at a local farmers market.
Managers at the Brainerd and Main Street markets agree those markets could use more customers for the vendors they have.
"We need more people out here consistently," Baranowski said.
Many people are more accustomed to buying fruits and vegetables at the grocery store than a farmers market, the market managers said.
Markets like the one at BlueCross help, said Ryan Picarella, who heads up corporate wellness at the company. A recent survey of its employees found more than 40 percent of those using the market did not shop other markets, and they also reported eating more vegetables.
"Everybody absolutely loves it," Picarella said.