Farmers markets can be diverse places, contrary to common belief. This month, the Sprout’s co-editor reflects on our current food system based on her experience working at the Union Square Farmers Market this summer.
It’s 8:40 A.M. The Union Square Farmers Market opens at 9 A.M. sharp. As we are scrambling to weigh and display our vegetables, a woman walks up to our stand at the height of our set-up. She quickly starts collecting a few eggplants and walks up, expecting to pay. Alex, my boss, looks over at me with a face that conveys, “I don’t speak Spanish,” so as I continue to weigh out broccolini, I tentatively turn my attention over to the woman. “No puedo… no puedo…..” – I can’t, I can’t. And finally, a decent attempt, “no puedes pagar antes de la nueve?”
My best attempt to explain that we cannot accept any money before the market opens at 9 was met with a very confused and annoyed look from the exclusively Spanish-speaking woman who kept trying to hand me some cash. She works at a restaurant around the corner, she explained, and she needs to be there by 9 and can’t wait until then to buy her eggplants. With an apologetic look on my face, I had to try to tell her, again in my broken Spanish, that no, I couldn’t deliver the eggplants to her later. In this frantic moment of weighing out all of the broccolini and trying to speak a language I had just started learning a month ago, I could not come up with the Spanish word for “busy” – “ocupado”.
Ironically enough, I had been asked to help Assawaga Farm, a farm I wrote about in a previous Sprout article, at the Union Square Farmers Market partly because I am bilingual. Alex and his wife Yoko are in their first growing season at their farm in Putnam, CT, where they grow a variety of crops, including some Japanese varieties not often found in the U.S.
They chose to come to markets in Somerville and Brookline over those in Connecticut in part because there would be a larger Japanese consumer base here. Every Saturday, Japanese families eagerly come over to our stand, excited about the Japanese produce we sell that they can’t find anywhere else in the area. Things like garlic chives, manganji peppers, shiso, Japanese cucumbers and eggplants – the kinds of produce Yoko herself craves and misses from home.
Farmers markets are sometimes described in a negative light. People claim them to be too pretentious, elitist, exclusive, and a luxury only a select, wealthy few can afford. In addition, in many parts of the U.S., they have been associated with “white privilege.” Visitors to the market, however, as illustrated in my opening anecdotes, can actually be quite diverse. Students, young couples, families, and older adults of various backgrounds can be seen each week at the market.
The vendors at the markets are just as varied. Within a single farmers market, you can find organic farmers, farmers who partially use pesticides, hydroponic farmers, conventional farmers, and more. Other than vegetable farmers, you’ll also find flower farmers, butchers, cider makers, juice vendors, dog food producers, prepared foods cooks, ceramic artists and more at the Union Square Farmers Market. Each vendor helps fill a need.
Increasingly, people have become dismayed by our industrial, mass-producing agricultural landscape. Conventional food systems are characterized by homogeneity and a lack of diversity, with just a few staple crops dominating a so-called “globalized diet”. However, in reality, the world is an incredibly diverse place, and food often helps people to their roots and their identity.
Because farms present at these markets often produce crops on a much smaller scale than their conventional counterparts, they are more easily able to experiment with different varieties and produce an array of crops not commonly seen on large mono-crop farms. Because of this, they are also able to serve a more diverse portion of the population. In addition, the presence of both conventional farmers using integrated pest management (IPM) and organic farmers allows those to pick and choose which items they would like to purchase at varying price points, while still giving them the opportunity to purchase fresh, healthy produce.
These markets don’t solely attract the wealthy few. Because many markets now accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and other forms of nutrition assistance as payment, a wide range of customers frequent our stand. In addition, now, many farmers markets in Massachusetts and other states have double value or cost-matching programs. This means that for every dollar customers spend, SNAP pays an extra dollar, meaning that recipients of SNAP can purchase double the amount they would have otherwise.
Many of our customers who depend on nutrition assistance in the forms of SNAP or HIP (Healthy Incentives Program) do not speak English fluently, and are often looking for something that they may not easily find in the grocery store – perhaps a staple from their childhood. Others simply want to provide themselves and their families with healthy food, like any other visitor to the market.
At times, exchanges with these customers illustrate the broken links in our food system. It is difficult to explain to some, for example, that we can accept Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) only if they get tokens from the market manager’s tent. Others come hoping to use their HIP benefits, and we struggle to explain to them that we cannot accept HIP because, due to uncertainty regarding the program’s funding at the beginning of the season, we did not get the card reader for the program this year. These exchanges illustrate how our food system is not adequately set up to accommodate immigrants in need of food assistance.
It is clear that farmers markets, instead of being a privileged place for a select few, actually help fill a void left by other parts of our food system. It helps families in need of food assistance get fresh produce that they may not be able to find at the grocery store. It provides a place for cultural exchange, and for people to discover new foods and specialty goods they have never tried before. Farmers markets are a diverse place that can serve the diverse population that inhabits our country, both nutritionally and culturally. The world is not homogenous, so why should our food supply be?
Nako Kobayashi is an AFE student interested in sustainable and diversified food systems. She spent the summer working for Assawaga Farm at the Union Square Farmers Market every saturday, as well as interning for Tufts Office of Sustainability on the Medford/Somerville campus. She is excited to go into her second semester at Friedman as a co-editor of the Friedman Sprout.