Five years ago, Karen Atkinson organized and managed the first South of the James farmers’ market in Forest Hill. It has since grown exponentially. How deep are her connections to the city, and what’s her next plan for Richmond?
“My life goes in chapters,” says Karen Atkinson in her Shockoe Bottom office one afternoon last week. She’s just completed a chapter, and now it’s time to work on the next one. All of Richmond is sure to be involved.
Atkinson is the founder and principal organizer of GrowRVA. Formerly known as The Market Umbrella, the organization is behind the city’s most popular farmers’ market: the South of the James Market. The market, which was created in 2007 at the behest of the city and Forest Hill community organizers, began with thirty vendors and brought in an average of 500 people each Saturday throughout its first year. Five years later it hosts over 100 vendors and nearly 5,000 people weekly. While undoubtedly a collaborative undertaking and effort, much of the success of Richmond’s largest farmers’ market belongs to Karen Atkinson.
Raised in Lakeside, Atkinson has spent most of her life in Richmond. After earning a degree in early childhood special education, Atkinson worked as a special-ed preschool teacher for six years. Her daughter was diagnosed with both autism and epilepsy and required continual care and supervision as a result.
She recalls “looking for something to do part-time” in her early 30’s after caring for her daughter exclusively. She started a pre-school group at the Greater Richmond ARC and worked in a program for disabled youth called Very Special Arts. She also created the Polka Dot Arts program.
Its goal was to create and hang art in the city’s homeless shelters. Originally envisioned for children, Atkinson found that the “moms would stay with them” to create art. It became so popular, that for four years the program maintained a gallery at 817 W. Broad Street.
In 2005, she was asked by the William Byrd Community House to organize and run the Byrd House farmers’ market. “It was great,” recalls Atkinson. “It was a totally vibrant and sustainable market.”
Two years later, the city and community organizers in Forest Hill approached her to create a farmers’ market in the area. It would become the South of the James Market. “We started May 2007 in Forest Hill Park.” At that time, she created an organizing body to assist her. She named it Market Umbrella, and it’s how most people in the city and surrounding counties have identified her. Ultimately, that distinction worked against her.
While the popularity of South of the James increases yearly—“almost like running an event or festival,” says Atkinson—so did Market Umbrella. A nonprofit in Louisiana took notice when the Richmond-based Market Umbrella returned more results in a Google search than they did. They sent a letter to Atkinson requesting that she change the name, threatening a $300,000 lawsuit if she refused. She renamed the organization GrowRVA. It was apt, as it could also title the next chapter of her life. This year is “the year of change and growth,” says Atkinson. “It’s time to move to the next level.”
Last month, GrowRVA began to organize The RVA Monster Food Truck Rally held at the Virginia Historical Society. The regular event features Thai Cabin, Rooster Cart, Habanero’s, among other food carts. She hopes that it will be the “main focal point for some of the fundraising that will happen.”
This fundraising will go to support endeavors beyond the farmers markets and Food Truck Rally. GrowRVA partners with the Virginia Department of Agriculture to allow state-assisted families to use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) dollars to purchase food directly from farmers and producers. GrowRVA also employs local homeless (“I’ve reconnected back with that population that I worked with for so long”) and sponsors a Hermitage High School special-ed basketball team.
The organization has also just started The Virginia Street Farmer’s Market. Held near The Virginia Street Gallery in the so-called Shockoe Design District, the market will run each Thursday from 3pm-7pm through October 25th. The South of the James Market is also getting fresh attention.
Atkinson said that each Saturday there will be an on-site chef that showcases dishes using ingredients available at the market. “Follow him, buy it, watch him do it, and go home and do it yourself,” says Atkinson. She underscores that children are encouraged to sell their items at the market, free of the already reasonable $20 fee vendors must pay, and that two-to-six nonprofits are allowed a free presence as well. Not only does she want the markets to be an exchange of locally-produced foods and goods, but to also to build “community awareness and support for things that are happening [in the city].”
So what is the next chapter of Karen Atkinson’s life? Be forewarned: spoiler alert. “I want to do things that make people love and appreciate this city.”
Correction: In an earlier version, RVANews reported that Karen Atkinson once worked at the Richmond RCA. She instead worked at the Greater Richmond ARC
photo courtesy of Jay Paul