Program Profiles: Farmers’ Markets

Scenes from a diversity of markets around the country.

Pasadena Certified Farmers’ Market
363 East Villa
Pasadena, CA, 91101
Phone: 626-449-0179


On a beautiful summer morning, Betty Hamilton and Gretchen Sterling stand out in the middle of Villa Parke, handing out slices of carrot cake to a seemingly never-ending flow of children, their faces just decorated by a clown nearby. They are celebrating the 17th birthday of the Pasadena Certified Farmers’ Market, created in 1980, and located next to the Villa Parke Community Center. This used to be the lowest income census tract in Pasadena, with a large population of African-Americans, but recently has begun to gentrify. The average income of community residents is $19,000 for a family of four, well under the $34,000 county median household income.

In 1980, Gretchen, who lives down the street from the market, was president of the Villa Parke Neighborhood Association. Betty was employed as a community organizer by the City’s Redevelopment Agency. Betty had heard of farmers’ markets through Interfaith Hunger Coalition’s newsletter, which had helped start the first farmers’ markets in Southern California in Gardena and in the West Adams area of Los Angeles. She thought markets would be an appropriate method to bolster the neighborhood’s sense of community as well as address its food access problems.

Gretchen and Betty employed a very explicit community-organizing model in starting the market. Rather than putting out paid advertising, they focused on community outreach, working with local churches and other non-profit organizations. On opening day, some 3,000-5,000 people turned out, far above expectations. The first farmers’ market for miles, it attracted residents from distant areas, eager to purchase fresh produce direct from the farmer. The market’s vendors sell a wide variety of products. While the majority is affordably priced fruits and vegetables, there are also flowers, bread, honey and eggs.

Betty and Gretchen have worked to ensure that the community has a sense of ownership of the market. They have held nutrition and cooking classes, as well as numerous events. When they first started making money on the market, they gave it away to local youth organizations, sponsored soccer teams, bought a wheelchair, and even took 50 local youth out to the shoe store and bought them new shoes.

Betty and Gretchen explicitly link this market to the Victory Park market they manage for a wealthier set of consumers in an upscale part of Pasadena. The Victory Park market was established as a subsidy for the farmers who had been selling their product at low prices in Villa Parke. With Villa Parke sales flat over the past few years, at about $6,000-$8,000 per week, they realize that subsidies are the “only way to survive for a low-income market.”

When asked why this market has been able to withstand the test of time to last 17 years – a veritable eon in Los Angeles – Betty credits the stability in the site and personnel and their community service perspective towards the market. But more important than these factors is the community support. As she told me on several occasions, “This is their market.”

Source: Hot Peppers and Parking Lot Peaches: Evaluating Farmers Markets in Low Income Communities. Andy Fisher, Community Food Security Coalition, 1999.

Stockton Certified Farmers’ Market
2707 E. Fremont St., Suite 9
Stockton, CA, 95205
209-943-1830 or 209-481-7421

“These beans are from my home in Laos, these are from China and these are from the Philippines,” said Pheng Ong, patting piles of skinny beans on his table at the Stockton Certified Farmers’ Market. He does not mean he flew his produce here from overseas. Like Ong, who is a Hmong refugee, the bean varieties are Asian in origin only. Ong grew them on leased land in his adopted home of Lodi, only 13 miles from here. More than a million Southeast Asian immigrants have settled in California since the United States withdrew its troops from Vietnam in 1975.

For these refugees, culinary traditions are a lifeline. Their best bet for finding fresh old-country ingredients is farmers’ markets such as this one in Stockton, serving 30,000 customers a year, under a cross-town freeway. While Ong’s long beans might send many Californians scurrying for an exotic cookbook, his customers know exactly what to do with them. “I like to cook them with a spicy lemon grass fish sauce and chicken,” says Orn Snguan, who was born in Cambodia. Besides the 55 vegetable and fruit stands, the market hosts six seafood vendors and – something no supermarket offers – four live-poultry vendors.

For farmers, the farmers’ markets make economic sense. When Ong drives his pickup to the Stockton market, he avoids wholesale distribution costs of packing, storing and cooling, netting as much as twice what he would from a wholesaler. Vendor gross receipts from a day here range from $400 to $800.

The Certified Farmers’ Market Program of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, launched during the late 1970s, eased conventional distribution regulations to help small farmers sell their produce locally. Today’s vendors – more than 4,000 farmers at the 416 certified farmers’ markets – are exempt from strict size, shape and packing regulations. This translates not only into a smoother process for farmers, but also into less food waste and a more variegated produce selection.

While an overpass wouldn’t seem the ideal awning for a market, this one is high and wide enough that the traffic noise, dust and exhaust don’t land here. The only cloud hanging over the market these days is a pending change in the way poor people buy food. Low-income shoppers use food stamps, as well as coupons from the Woman, Infants and Children (WIC) and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition programs. Food stamp sales alone average more than $600,000 a year. The worry is an anticipated switch to digital swipe cards. The system, called Electronic Benefits Transfer or EBT, will require farmers to buy a gadget that will automatically deduct dollars from a customer’s account and deposit it in the farmers account. Sounds simple, but the technology is complex and costly. Besides buying the card-reading machine, vendors will have to set up accounts with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), a potentially intimidating transaction for those whose English and bureaucratic skills are shaky.

“Some of our farmers don’t have bank accounts and aren’t yet integrated into the same small-business world as are other food sellers,” said Carlos Dutra, manager of the Stockton Certified Farmers’ Market Association. He takes hope from state officials’ promises to find ways to ease the transition both for farmers and consumers. Stockton already got a lucky break in the scheduling of the county-by-county transition. “We will be the last market to adopt EBT,” he said, smiling. “By that time, the other counties should have worked out the bugs.”

As Dutra watches buyers chatting with sellers, sampling and taking home bags bulging with fresh, high-quality local produce, he can’t help but believe the digital turbulence will pass. “It’s better than the grocery store,” he said. “There’s no competition.”

Sources: Weaving the Food Web: Community Food Security in California. Community Food Security Coalition, 2002.; Communications with Carlos Dutra (market in partnership with the California Community Food Security Network, 2002

Washington Heights (175th Street) Farmers’ Market
51 Chambers Street, Room 228
New York, NY 10007
Greenmarket: 212-788-7476

One of the busiest low-income markets in New York lies at the corner of 175th and Broadway in front of Reverend Ike’s famous revival church. In what was once a Jewish neighborhood in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, but is now an impoverished African-American and Latin American area, the Washington Heights Greenmarket bustles with throngs of shoppers on this September Thursday. The vast majority of sales are in Woman, Infant, and Childrens (WIC) coupons, estimated at 60% to 95% of total sales.

The Washington Heights market was started in the mid 1980s in conjunction with Washington Heights Community Development Corporation. It was a bustling market before the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) program took hold and has developed substantially since then. One important component of the market’s success has been its ability to match farmers with consumers; the growers that sell here have been chosen deliberately because of their affordable prices. Greenmarkets operate under the principle of incorporating larger farmers (more than 50 acres) with a high volume in low-income markets, assuming that they will be able to sell at lower prices than smaller farmers with less volume.

The market’s nine growers sell basic produce – lots of corn, apples, tomatoes, onions, potatoes and the like – as well as food more attuned to the local palate – like calabaza, a pumpkin-like squash commonly prepared in soup by Latin American families. According to market manager Jose Ramos, the success of vendors at Washington Heights is largely due to their attention to the cultural preferences of consumers. Many of the farmers have even offered to cultivate seeds brought from the home countries of their customers. Said Ramos’, “The farmers have changed the neighborhood and the neighborhood has changed the farmers.”

The market has maintained excellent relations with the neighborhood by promoting its role as a vehicle for community economic development. While Greenmarkets hasn’t articulated a policy on this issue, it has made wise choices at this market. One such decision consisted of allowing street vendors to sell nearby. A flea market occupies the same space the other days of the week, presenting job prospects to local residents. By allowing the vendors to continue to sell nearby, the market has built up goodwill and avoided alienating the community. Similarly, the market staff has collaborated with the local WIC offices to identify women with an interest in working and connected them with farmers in need of assistance. As many of the shoppers are Spanish speakers, it is imperative to have Spanish-speaking personnel at each stand.

The market’s relationship with the city has remained very positive over the years. Washington Heights enjoys excellent assistance from NYPD, which has aggressively towed cars that block access. One cop in particular has “adopted” the market and has been very helpful in addressing its needs. In a city where connections can make or break any venture, community and political support have been critical to the success of the Washington Heights Market.

Sources: Hot Peppers and Parking Lot Peaches: Evaluating Farmers Markets in Low Income Communities. Andy Fisher, Community Food Security Coalition, 1999. Communication with Jose Ramos (market manager), 2003.

Waverly (32nd Street) Farmers’ Market
32nd Street Farmers Market
221 Ridgemede Rd, #303
Baltimore, MD 21210

A few blocks from Johns Hopkins University, in a parking lot at the border of a low to moderate income African-American neighborhood, a poor Korean community, an affluent area and a student neighborhood, the Waverly Farmers’ Market attracts a diverse crowd for its fruits and veggies. As Gerri Henchey, a long-time resident, anti-hunger activist, and market patron noted, “This is one of the few places in Baltimore that is so racially mixed.”

On a rainy September Saturday, the market bustled with an integrated crowd – one-third African-American and the rest young and middle-aged hip-looking white people. Its 30-plus vendors were split between stands of very basic fruits and vegetables at affordable prices, and vendors selling salad greens, designer organic produce, goat cheese and $5 loaves of bread, and a barbecue operation making grilled porcini mushroom sandwiches. Perhaps two of the most interesting stands were a Somalian immigrant woman selling samosa-like and hush puppie-like fritters to a constant stream of African-Americans patrons, and an ex-welfare recipient who had just graduated from a class in entrepreneurialism and was selling BBQ tofu sandwiches “ unfortunately, without much luck on this particular day.

The market has experienced competition from street vendors selling products such as oranges and bananas that aren’t available at the farmers’ market. With the help of a city ordinance that bans such sales within 300 feet of a farmers’ market, the police chased away the street vendors. Similarly, the presence of panhandlers became a problem when they began to steal from the farmers and made the shopping experience unpleasant for many customers. The local Business Improvement District funded the hiring of a security guard whose presence curbed panhandling and completely halted theft.

Waverley’s product mix is a combination of deliberate consideration and a hands-off approach. The market actively recruited an African-American and a Korean farmer as a means of promoting the market among those populations. Unlike other farmers’ markets, Waverley doesn’t prevent the resale of items that are hard to grow in the surrounding area, including carrots, onions and potatoes. This decision was consistent with a strategy for meeting the needs of the community. Beyond these actions, Waverly market managers don’t control the products that farmers bring, as some markets do to reduce internal competition.

The market’s relationship with the surrounding community manifests itself through a number of factors. The market sets aside a space for local groups to set up a table. Recent tablers have included Friends of the Library, Habitat for Humanity and the Charlesville Centennial. More significantly, the Board donates profits from stall fees (set at $10/week) in mini-grants to local churches, schools, and the library, in effect giving back to the community while gaining priceless publicity and goodwill.

Sources: Hot Peppers and Parking Lot Peaches: Evaluating Farmers Markets in Low Income Communities. Andy Fisher, Community Food Security Coalition, 1999; Communication with Marc Rey, 2003.