In 1879 Cleveland Prichard of Toulminville bought a tract of land several miles north of Mobile and developed it into an agricultural hub. Capitalizing on the early growing seasons and proximity to the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, Prichard bought produce from local farmers which he would then ship north. To ensure crops stayed fresh across state lines, Prichard is said to have invented a refrigerated rail car. His success earned him the nickname “The Vegetable King.”
Today, Prichard has been deemed a barren food landscape. In a study published in 2014, “Fresh Food for All: Improving Access to Fresh Food in Alabama,” researchers working with the Ford Foundation’s Wealth Creation Clinic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology defined a “food desert” as an area with lower-than-average income and limited access to fresh-food retail outlets. Heading the study, representing her own Mobile-based nonprofit, was Prichard native Jessica Norwood.
“The charge out of the Ford Foundation was to look at more rural communities and how to make them more resilient, and how to build more local economies,” Norwood said. “You have folks who are growing but can’t get [their produce] to the market, whether it’s a farmers market, or a [community supported agriculture program], all the way to a grocery store. Our job was to look at that entire food system and figure out where there were fractures, and where a financial intervention might help move it along.”
Like Prichard’s founder, Norwood is a visionary. In 2012 she was featured as one of Mobile Bay Magazine’s 40 brightest movers and shakers under 40, and is the executive director and founder of the Emerging ChangeMakers Network (ECN). Looking for a low-cost entry to address the problem of limited access to fresh produce in her community, Norwood looked back to its roots.
In December 2014 she recruited members for a steering committee and drew up plans to bring the North Mobile County Food Park and Market (www.nomocofoodie.org) to Prichard every first and third Saturday of the month.
After a soft launch July 18, the Prichard market had a grand opening on Saturday, Aug. 1. Seven vendors and Ben’s Burga Kaboose, a food truck, set up shop from 9 a.m. to noon in the old Sawyer Furniture lot on 204 Wilson Ave.
Produce was provided by Old Shell Market, but the pop-up venue also featured handmade traditional African dresses and jewelry, Sarah’s Stuff (homemade arts and crafts and paintings), John-Stanley’s Wooden Wonder Honey, locally made fruit and vegetable juices by Juice Faqtory (sic), Retriever Soapworks (homemade soaps and other natural products), Danielle Delight’s homemade baked goods, and David’s Lemonade, operated by 10-year-old David Bettis and his sister Hannah, age 7. The latter entrepreneurs’ mother, Teresa Bettis, is a member of the NoMoCo market’s steering committee and a longtime resident of Prichard.
“People used to be able to just walk down the street and there was J.C. Penney and Butler Shoes. Prichard was a hopping place. Now there have been two generations who have grown up only knowing this,” Bettis said, pointing to the rundown storefronts along Wilson Avenue. The city’s main thoroughfare — currently undergoing resurfacing — provides a snapshot of Prichard’s years of economic hardship, which transformed the city like a field left fallow and then forgotten.
After its heyday, major employers like Brookley Air Force Base and the Scott and International paper companies closed down and people left town. At its peak in 1960, Prichard’s population exceeded 47,000 people. In 2010, fewer than half that number called it home. The city’s identity as a promising community, the prosperity of which was built on the backs of farmers, has long been lost.
Norwood, who grew up surrounded by those in public service — her father is former Prichard Mayor Jesse Norwood and her grandfather, Jesse Norwood Sr., founded the Prichard Mohawks baseball team — is out to change all that. But she knows the proof is in the pudding.
“You can tell people there’s a farmers market, but you have to get it on the ground for folks to believe it,” Norwood said.
And so she was there, at 7:30 a.m. July 18, setting up tents and dragging folding tables across the lawn. Beside her, Ellen Sims, pastor at Open Table Church, shoveled dirt to clear out the plots for community members or businesses to adopt.
Though Norwood’s work at ECN takes her to speaking engagements across the country, she still finds time to promote the market on local airwaves and coordinate door-to-door canvassers to spread the word. Ideally, the NoMoCo market will become not only a boon for Prichard, but a destination for those in surrounding areas with similar limited access to fresh, local produce, areas like Saraland, Chickasaw and Plateau.
For now the goal is to prove that something like a farmers market can work in a place like Prichard. And according to market manager Jonathan Adams, even if farmers markets aren’t your thing, there will be something for everybody.
“The market will be a way to promote what’s already going on in Prichard, an avenue for people to showcase their talents; a place for great food, culture and a common space,” Adams said.
Battling the August sun, Rochelle French and her mother, Mary Ward, heard about the market on gospel radio station WGOK and wanted to check it out for themselves. For 10 years, French and Ward lived in Prichard, on Clark Street not far from the Sawyer lot. Apart from seeking out a good deal on okra and bell peppers, French was curious about what a market would look like in Prichard. She was encouraged by what she saw.
“It helps to revitalize the city,” French said. “Over time we’ve seen this place just kind of tear down and become a dinosaur, so this is a nice start. It made me excited to hear where it was going to be.”
“Plus, we’re trying to eat healthy,” Ward added.
Now that the market at Cathedral Square has closed for the season, more vendors and entertainers are expected to hop off Interstate 65 to set up tents in the old Sawyer Furniture lot. Time will tell if the market inspires the resurgence of the beleaguered city or if, indeed, Norwood and company can be the catalyst that Cleveland Prichard once was. The seeds at least have been planted.