For a community bank, there are few other better ways to promote the concept of local business and local food than collaborating with a local farmers market. Six years ago the concept was hatched in conversations between the Farmers Market president, a senior bank officer, and the bank’s card services manager. Considering the Grand Rapids Farmers Market members had been a bank customer throughout its now 30 years of existence, the ‘sell’ was easy.
“Community banking is about supporting the local community,” says Noah Wilcox, president and CEO of the Bank. “We're proud to partner with the Market to support efforts that deliver local food to local residents. Helping the Market accept various forms of electronic payments makes the market accessible to more people, and we are proud of that.”
“We were an enthusiastic supporter of the Farmers Market when they approached us six years ago,” said Ed Zabinski, Sr. Vice President of Grand Rapids State Bank. “We are a local, homegrown bank and we have a great deal of natural sympathy for local growers and vendors selling home-grown, local products.”
During the first year of collaboration, a bank employee would spend several hours at the market coaching the Market staff on how to use the electronic payment devices. The bank quickly realized that this work would be a good learning experience for a summer college intern. Since then, the bank has hired interns to work during the summer at the Farmers Market each Market day from Memorial Day to Labor Day processing credit and debit cards and balancing the books. In addition, the bank gives the Market favorable rates for electronic benefits transfer (EBT) and debit card processing and donates two wireless card readers.
To many, the most important benefit of the card reader booth and its intern operator is the increased access to fresh, healthy, local food for people who need it the most. EBT cards, similar to debit cards, replaced the Food Stamps during the 1990s as a way to cut down on merchant fraud and to reduce the perceived stigma of using food assistance.
“Having these whip-smart young bank employees covering the hundreds of financial logs and transactions throughout the day is a huge benefit for our market,” explains Grand Rapids Farmers Market Manager Bill Boutang. “It gives me the opportunity to concentrate on promotion, food demonstrations, set-up and breakdown, customer interactions... the Market wouldn't be the same without their hard work.”
To help the Market celebrate its 30th birthday, the Bank rolled out a targeted marketing campaign. “It seemed very appropriate to provide a bit of an assist this year considering the relationship we’ve built over the past years with the Farmers Market,” commented Julie Birkey, Vice President-Marketing. “We repurposed our billboard across from our Pokegama Branch on U.S. Highway 169, the main north-south thoroughfare in Grand Rapids, with a giant birthday greeting during the month of July. We also provided colorful 'Bank Local, Eat Local' buttons for our tellers, focused our Tall Timber Days parade float around the ‘Bank Local, Eat Local’ theme, gave away weekly produce baskets from the Market during the summer, posted signage within the bank offices on Market days, and included the Farmers' Market in our social media activities all summer.”
Other regional banks have taken notice and have called to ask about how to get a relationship like this off the ground. “It a natural way of supporting our community, and maybe it’s a model other community banks can use,” added Birkey.