Tastes Real

Support your local farmers' market for better food — and a better economy.

It was an unusually cold December morning in San Francisco, the kind of morning that lays thin sheets of ice on parked car windshields, a morning when even the hardiest of wind warriors are bundled up in down. I might have stayed in bed. But instead, I chucked on a bunch of layers and took myself to the new Inner Sunset Farmers' Market.

I was not alone. Parents, hipsters, and little kids in ridiculously puffy coats swarmed the block-long parking lot between Eighth and Ninth avenues, which was lined with vendors selling the likes of butternut squash, oyster mushrooms, and gluten-free chocolate beet cake. A live band played while people hung out, sampled treats, and bought their weekly groceries. Gloved veggie sellers, honey producers, fruit growers, and soapmakers happily exchanged goods and witty repartee with customers.

This small but successful outdoor market is only one of several new farmers' markets to set up shop in San Francisco in the last year. It's not just our city that's seeing this trend, either. According to a recent USDA study, the number of farmers' markets has seen a 13 percent national increase in 2009. So, the natural question is: why?

“People are definitely realizing that we need to support our own economy and farmers — they want to put more back into the local community,” said Elizabeth Howe, regional manager for the Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association, while welcoming people at the Inner Sunset information booth. She helped the local neighborhood association put together this new market, which “has become a focal point for people. It makes the Inner Sunset more of a village.”

Nearby, at a stand for his Moss Landing organic mushroom company, Far West Fungi, John Garrone cited the economy as a factor. “The whole idea of eating cheaper, smarter, better is appealing,” says Garrone, who is also president of Civic Center's Heart of the City Farmers' Market Community Advisory Board. “The markets do better during hard times. If you're not eating out as much, you're going to be buying more food [to eat at home].” He added that many of the farmers' markets now take food stamps, as an added bonus.

At another relatively new farmers' market at Divisadero and Grove in the Western Addition/NOPA area, which opened in 2008, an even smaller but equally lively market was under way. While vendors offered olive and nut samples, Leyna Tilbor, a young and enthusiastic merchant for Camino-based Rainbow Orchards, talked to me between small but consistent sales of apples to regular customers. “Business has not been suffering in the current economic state,” she said. “In fact, it's been better. It's a combination of practicality and awareness.”

It's not so much that everything at the farmers' market is cheaper, dollar for dollar, than at the supermarket. But in times of hardship and economic difficulty, Tilbor says, people return to their communities and look for ways to join together and take back control from larger powers: “Paying with cash and getting food from the person who grows it is a deep comfort for people.”

Keeping it local
Keeping things local is a main goal of the farmers' markets, not just in terms of how far we have to go to get to your food, but in terms of how far the food has to go to get to us. Food in this country travels an average of 1,500 miles from production to supermarket, but at the farmers' market, the average is only 100 to 150 miles.

Buying from local sources is good for many reasons. It keeps local farms in business, which is good for our communities and ecologies. It also means less fuel needed for transportation, which is an environmental boost. And it keeps people in touch with the natural rhythms of the planet, which means eating what is in season in their part of the world.

It's important to support local farmers because if we don't, they'll go out of business, says apiarist Robert MacKimmie of City Bees: “If there's no farmland within 100 miles of where you live, you're in trouble.”

MacKimmie is one of the markets' most local vendors — the honey he sells comes from right here in San Francisco, from pollen collected in places like McLaren Park, the Mission, and Cole Valley. He says that we will soon simply be unable to rely on getting food from far away. “It's not economically viable to import blueberries from South America. There's no way it's going to be possible soon.”

When I asked MacKimmie why he thought people were suddenly starting to care about local farming, he said, “Blame it on Michael Pollan.” Books like Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and films like Food, Inc., which have criticized the mass-producing and importing methods of the global food industry, are definitely changing people's habits. Other influencers, market supporters say, include celebrities who advocate for locally grown produce, such as Berkeley culinary icon Alice Waters, cooking show host Martha Stewart, and even, yes, the Obamas.

“The White House garden was incredibly inspirational to people,” says Christine Farren, administrative and events manager for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture. CUESA runs the biggest farmers' market in the city, by the Ferry Building, which recently added a third day a week.

Farren also cites the 10 percent unemployment rate as a probable contributing factor to the appearance of new farmers' markets. Like many farmers' markets, the one at the Ferry Building relies deeply on volunteer support. “If there's an upside to the times, it's that people have more time to give,” she says. She also notes that customers are increasingly interested in growing their own food, saying that last year people were looking for flower starts and this year are looking to buy herb starts. “Herbs are a great option for city dwellers,” she says, adding that the large bunches of herbs sold at the markets are often too plentiful to get fully used: “You need thyme, but not that much thyme. How much better to grow your own in a pot and just take what you need, and feel the satisfaction of nurturing a plant as well as yourself?”

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