Chandra Jackson couldn’t be more excited about convincing students to eat their vegetables.
Jackson is the Retail Manager for Sodexo Dining Services at The University of Texas at Tyler. She created the Farmer’s Market program to increase access to fresh produce for students.
“The farmer's market went, well, literally viral,” Jackson said. “I didn’t think it was going to be as big as it was because it was our first time, but it was phenomenal. Students are requesting different things and more stuff. So I'm going to kind of try to keep it, I'm gonna do the major farmer's market all the time, once a month, like we said, I did it this month early on because we did a pop in because the last week of school.”
Jackson started out with one planned day, Feb. 15, but due to the historic snowstorm, it had to be cancelled. Check out The Patriot Talon’s video reporting on it here. Jackson moved the market to Wednesday, March 17 for its official debut.
“The sales were great,” Jackson said. “The first Farmer’s Market we actually sold out of everything. And then we had a second-day Farmer's Market because I had some evening students complaining that we were only doing 11 to two, but we actually stayed till four that day. They felt like we needed a later one for the dinner rush, and so the next day, which was the Thursday right after, we did a two to six event and it went viral as well.”
The Farmer’s Market went from once a month to twice a month in two different time slots to accommodate student schedules. With more time slots comes more revenue.
“So we basically, I want to say, my truck was like $2,100,” Jackson said. “We made about $3,800, $3,900. So we profited about $1,300 or $1,400 per event.”
According to sales data provided by Jackson, the cost of the food order totaled $2,174.66. With revenue from the Farmer’s Market at $3,329.55, Sodexo profited $1,154.89.
At the first event, a Nursing student named Rachel tried to buy a watermelon, but couldn’t carry it to class.
“I got blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, and mangos,” Rachel said. “The mangos are basically for me to cut tonight and, like, I'm going on a little road trip—which is like an hour, hour and a half away—so I’m going to cut it up for me and my boyfriend to eat. And then i got this trend where it’s like natural cereal where you add all of this and pomegranates and coconut water and you eat it and it tastes really good, so I want to try it.”
Rachel was the first student to check out at the Farmer’s Market, and was happy with the prices of all the produce she purchased. The containers of berries were five dollars apiece, she said, and the mangos were three dollars in total.
“[The] only thing that was kind of expensive was the strawberries because of the fact that how much they really are and how much we paid,” Jackson said. “I actually charge you guys at cost because I didn't want to not, I didn't want to basically profit [in that way]. I wanted to just make sure you guys had what you needed and your dorm rooms, wherever you are so that y'all, don't have to spend your money outside of here.”
Despite having a large variety of goods available at every event, there are some obvious student favorites. Jackson noted that she didn’t realize that UT Tyler students were so interested in eating healthy.
Personally, I told her it was because we almost never get the option here. Subway has stopped chopping up salads; it’s hard to get something low-carb from Tres Habaneros, just to name a couple of roadblocks.
“They bought the baby kale—that went viral,” Jackson said. “Love baby kale. I didn't realize you guys were such on a healthy kick here, but I found out and if not, we're promoting health and wellness. So it is engaging that everybody's coming to it. No matter what, especially the African community, they really took well to us bringing in fresh produce. Like they were buying up all the blueberries, the blackberries and raspberries, like different kinds of the fresh fruit - mangos. It was going crazy, and they were so excited we were actually bringing some fresh stuff.”
Most international students on campus do not have their own cars. According to previous reporting in The Patriot Talon, former UT Tyler SGA president Preston Templeman said that some international students, as recently as 2018, were buying a new bike every year because they could not arrange to take it home.
“[International students] can only work 20 hours here with us,” Jackson said. “So not just the African community, but all of the international students, they were very, very happy that we did something like this. So I'm going to continue it. It's not going to stop now.”
According to Jackson, their plan to host one the week before graduation didn’t pan out, due to the decrease in student foot traffic. During finals week (April 26 through April 30, for Spring 2021) classes are generally not held in person; finals are scheduled, but typically sporadic throughout the week according to availability.
“We were going to do two days this month, however [students are] running out of dining dollars,” Jackson said. “So I've been just keeping the C-Store stocked for right now, stocked with everything that we can. I'm also going to be adding on eggs, cheese and meats. I’m gonna be trying to get some things like that to make it like a little grocery store, as well, inside of the C-Store on top of the Farmer's Market, so that you all can use it on dining dollars and I have to make a trip to the grocery store, this to be your true one stop shop.”
The C-Store is what Sodexo calls the Swoop-and-Go.
Despite not being able to run a full market, Jackson has committed to stocking the vegetable cooler in the Swoop-and-Go—which typically holds grab-and-go sandwiches, salads and fruit—with similar produce as a toned-down version of the market.
“And if it's doing like we're doing … in August, we won't have one because it will just be coming back to school,” Jackson said. “So, September, November, we're going to do two of everything. Instead of doing one Farmer's Market, we're going to do every other week. And that way it'll keep up, you know, with the trends of them having to go to the grocery store.”
By emphasizing the importance of access to fresh produce to a demographic that has been historically blocked from regular healthy groceries—not just college students, but international students at semi-rural schools in general—Sodexo is combating food deserts in Tyler.
According to the USDA’s Economic Research Services, UT Tyler itself shares a border with one of them (Old Omen Road being the border) and is itself dangerously close to the other two. Actually, Liberty Landing and Victory Village Apartments both fall into the same veritable food desert.
“Census tracts qualify as food deserts if they meet low-income and low-access thresholds: Low-income: a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater, or a median family income at or below 80 percent of the statewide or metropolitan area median family income; Low-access: at least 500 persons and/or at least 33 percent of the population lives more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (10 miles, in the case of rural census tracts),” reads the USDA definition.
People in these areas lack the income to afford most fresh produce and groceries, and/or the access to them in the first place. Access can be distance, both walkable distance and driving distance, whether or not they have a car, or even if there are grocery stores within a distance of 20 miles or more.
“I believe that the students definitely will eat better if we provide it for them,” Jackson said. “Since we have provided it, they're gonna always want it. So we're not letting it go up. It's not going anywhere. It's not, it's not going anywhere. It's going to be something that I think they're looking for for many years to come.”