New Columbia City Farmers Market manager Karen K. takes the reigns from Karen K.

COLUMBIA CITY - It's just one week until opening day of the Columbia City Farmer's Market (CCFM) and new Market Manager Karen Kerschner is running just a few minutes late - so far anyway.

To say that she's busy would be an understatement. She has a note on the back of her hand that will hopefully remind her to pick up twist ties later; her arms are filled with a stack of market posters, newsletters and flyers that she intends to post and distribute throughout the day and her boss is starting to threaten her with forced days off.

Kerschner looks relieved when I offer to wait while she gets a cup of coffee and spends several minutes quietly catching up with the woman behind the counter at Columbia City Bakery. You get the sense that she knows most everyone in the place; not in that obnoxiously overt way that reminds you of someone trying to be popular, rather the pleasantly subtle way that lets you know you're in the presence of someone playing a vital role in the community.

In fact, Kerschner herself is the first to admit that she's got quite the garden clogs to fill in replacing CCFM founder and the only market manager Columbia City has ever had, the venerable Karen Kinney.

(Not to mention the added confusion of sharing Kinney's initials. Co-workers have appropriately named the two "Big K" and "Little K," since Kinney is rather tall and Kerschner only about five-feet)

Kinney and a small group of dedicated volunteers started CCFM in 1998, modeling it after California's "producer-only" markets that disallow brokers and crafters and focus exclusively on bringing fresh, local food to the community.

"It's exciting to see face-to-face interactions between customers and farmers as they learn who grows their food, how to eat seasonally and exactly where their food comes from," said Kerschner. "I feel a part of something very important: helping small farmers eke out an existence in our multi-national corporate food system where distributors see more money than farmers and most food travels an average distance of 1,500 miles from farm to table."

She is particularly dedicated to providing an outlet in the Rainier Valley for low-income shoppers to access fresh, quality produce.

"Considering the linkages between socioeconomic status and obesity, diabetes and heart disease, this is absolutely necessary," she said.

Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, minority women with low incomes appear to have the greatest likelihood of being overweight and many obesity-related diseases including diabetes, hypertension, cancer and heart disease are found in higher rates among various members of racial-ethnic minorities compared with whites.

Long recognized as Seattle's most culturally diverse community, Southeast Seattle attracts more immigrants than any other part of the city. With nothing even vaguely reminiscent of a grocery store along the nearly four-mile stretch of Rainier Avenue South from South Charlestown Street to Sturtevant Avenue, there is little doubt that - for half the year - CCFM fills a void.

One local farmer once called CCFM "the United Nations of farmers' markets." Kerschner agrees, identifying CCFM as the most demographically diverse farmers market in Seattle.

In keeping with its community-based mission and commitment to those in need, CCFM farmers donate produce to local food banks at the end of each market day. In addition, all Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance (NFMA) markets in Seattle, including CCFM, accept EBT/food stamps and WIC/senior farmers market nutrition (FMNP) coupons - a policy that CCFM founder Karen Kinney was instrumental in developing.

"I cringe a little when folks introduce me as Karen Kinney's replacement," admitted Kerschner. "While that may be true in a technical sense, it will never be true in an actual one. I prefer to think of myself as someone who shares Karen Kinney's commitment to her community and to the preservation of small farming in general, and will do what I can to continue the great work she began."

She added, "Of course, I will concede to having selfish reasons for doing what I do - I love the deep sense of community and getting to meet and visit with farmers and customers, and there's no place I'd rather be on a gorgeous summer day than outside under the sun!"

It's funny, no matter how busy and frazzled their lives can be - most good, effective community leaders share at least one common trait: the ability to sit and talk, focusing for a particular period of time in a way that says there's no place they'd rather or need to be. Little K is good at that. She gave an interesting, patient and thorough interview and, thanks to me, is now running nearly 45 minutes late.

Mount Baker writer Amber Campbell may be reached via[[In-content Ad]]