BY NATHAN CUSHING
âMy life goes in chapters,â says Karen Atkinson in her Shockoe Bottom office one afternoon last week. Sheâs just completed a chapter, and now itâs time to work on the next one. All of Richmond is sure to be involved.
Atkinson is the founder and principal organizer ofÂ GrowRVA. Formerly known as The Market Umbrella, the organization is behind the cityâs most popular farmersâ 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 the success of Richmondâs largest farmersâ 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 âlooking for something to do part-timeâ in her early 30âs after caring for her daughter exclusively. She started a pre-school group at theÂ Richmond Alternative Center for HealthÂ (RAC) 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 cityâs homeless shelters. Originally envisioned for children, Atkinson found that the âmoms would stay with themâ 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 farmersâ market. âIt was great,â recalls Atkinson. âIt was a totally vibrant and sustainable market.â
Two years later, the city and community organizers in Forest Hill approached her to create a farmersâ market in the area. It would become the South of the James Market. âWe started May 2007 in Forest Hill Park.â At that time, she created an organizing body to assist her. She named it Market Umbrella, and itâs 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 yearlyââalmost like running an event or festival,â says Atkinsonâso did Market Umbrella. AÂ nonprofit in LouisianaÂ 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 âthe year of change and growth,â says Atkinson. âItâs time to move to the next level.â
Last month, GrowRVA began to organizeÂ The RVA Monster Food Truck RallyÂ held at the Virginia Historical Society. The regular event features Thai Cabin, Rooster Cart, Habaneroâs, among other food carts. She hopes that it will be the âmain focal point for some of the fundraising that will happen.â
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 (âIâve reconnected back with that population that I worked with for so longâ) and sponsors a Hermitage High School special-ed basketball team.
The organization has also just startedÂ The Virginia Street Farmerâs Market. Held near The Virginia Street Gallery in the so-calledÂ 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. âFollow him, buy it, watch him do it, and go home and do it yourself,â 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 âcommunity awareness and support for things that are happening [in the city].â
So what is the next chapter of Karen Atkinsonâs life? Be forewarned: spoiler alert. âI want to do things that make people love and appreciate this city.â
photo courtesy of Jay Paul