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Good food grows from well planted seeds in New Haven
One neighborhood farmersí market evolves into four different venues

The first CitySeed farmersí market was started in 2004, aimed at supporting a sustainable food system that promotes community development and economic development. CitySeed Executive Director Jennifer McTiernan talks about what has been driving the rapid growth of farmersí markets in New Haven, and what the benefits to both consumers and farmers are. (CONTINUED BELOW)

Jennifer McTiernan

Executive Director

CitySeed, New Haven

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The many facets of CitySeed    

The mission of CitySeed is to engage the New Haven community in growing a sustainable local food system that promotes community development, economic development and sustainable agriculture. It was started by a group of neighbors in Wooster Square as City Farmersí Market, Wooster Square. CitySeed is a non-profit organization.

It began, number one, because there wasnít really a good farmerís market in the city that was a producer-only market Ė where you could go and know you were buying directly from the farmer. Number two, specifically in this neighborhood, there was nowhere to get fresh fruits and vegetables. This is a really diverse neighborhood with young professionals, elderly Italian people, and you have public housing. In this really diverse place there was just nowhere you could go to buy broccoli or tomatoes or an onion. 

So, we saw a need. And there was this park where the Farmersí Market is located that didnít have a purpose and was kind of just here.  It seemed that we could take advantage of this green space, energize it with this community event, this weekly gathering, and provide local, healthy food to the community.

We began last year [2004] in Wooster Square on July 17th and it was a really amazing thing:  I had to twist farmersí arms to get them to come into the city, but once they got here on opening day Ö We opened at 10 a.m. and by noon pretty much everyone was sold out. There were actually farmers who went back to their farms to get more to sell.

So, it became very clear very quickly that New Haven people had been waiting for a place where they could buy local healthy food, where they could interact with farmers, where they could support local agriculture, where they could buy organic heirloom tomatoes, and also use their WIC coupons.  From the very beginning, the markets have been WIC certified, so we accept the Farmersí Market Nutrition Program coupons for nutritionally at-risk women, infant children and seniors.

It was really important for us to create a farmersí market that can attract a wide range of community members.  Very soon into that first season we had other community organizations approach us and other people who live in the city approach us and say, ďHey, could you come to our neighborhood?Ē So, we ended up working with two community organizations in Fair Haven to open up a market there.  We worked with the downtown organization to revitalize their downtown farmersí market.  And then we started a market on the west side of the city in Edgewood Park, where these four neighborhoods meet, because there was a community group there that said, ďHey, come to our neighborhood, too.Ē

So, as of July 13 [2005], weíve had four markets running in four different neighborhoods.  And for us, this model of having neighborhood markets is important because one of the obstacles, especially for people who are nutritionally at-risk, to buying local food and buying fresh food is transportation.  So, if you make markets neighborhood-based and put them in enough places, then youíre really reaching out to people who can just simply walk to the market. If they donít have a car, if the bus line isnít quite convenient for them, they can literally walk on a Sunday, go to this beautiful park and buy lovely, local food thatís really healthy for them. And thatís what weíre hoping to achieve with these local neighborhood markets. 

Farmers love urban markets

The response from farmers has been amazing.  Last year, I had the problem of having to twist arms and make deals to get farmers to come to the first Farmersí Market.  And now I have to tell farmers, ďI canít add another farm to that market yet!  Iím starting them all small and I really want to create a good base of support before we expand it anymore.Ē In fact, I have farmers who have already told me, ďOnce you want to add another farmer to that market, call me.Ē  What I really think is going on is that farmers are realizing that direct marketing is a really smart way to go Ė that they can interact with the public, be part of this community event. They can sell their products at retail prices, which is very different from selling them wholesale to restaurants, to grocery stores. I think itís the interaction with the public and I think itís the fact that it makes their farms economically viable.

And suddenly it makes growing specialty crops viable. For example, we have a farm here that has all these different varieties of heirloom tomatoes.  Going to a farmersí market and having people who come back to you week after week to try another one of your tomatoes makes your operation economically viable. Thatís also what we hope to be doing, promoting farm viability and increasing farmer income and insuring that. 

What we hope is that this farmersí market and this network of farmersí markets will not only support the farmers who come to the market but also encourage people to consider farming as an occupation. We need to stem the decline in the number of farms and encourage people to go into farming.

Food, a democratizing force

Whatís amazing about food is that we all must eat.  So, I think food is a democratizing force for sure, especially in a community setting.  And I think thatís one of the amazing things that happen in a farmersí market. 

So it was very important for CitySeed from the beginning to be WIC-certified so that the farmers would accept the Farmersí Market Nutrition Program Coupons, which are specifically for women, infants, children and seniors who are nutritionally at risk.

City Farmersí Market Wooster Square became the first Farmersí Market in the state to accept EBT cards this June (Itís basically food stamps on a card.) About maybe seven years ago, farmersí markets were able to accept paper food stamps.  But when food stamps got put on an electronic card, many farmersí markets didnít have the kind of technology required to use the card. But, because of new wireless terminal technologies, thatís now possible.

For us, itís just critical to make sure that farmersí market is a place where every member of the community can shop... It must be accessible. You must accept WIC.  You must accept EBT.  It also must have such a variety of produce that if you want to come and get a really good deal on a bag of squash, you can do that.  If you want to come and buy really precious salad greens, you can do that, too. You need to make sure that your offerings and your price points are variable enough and really run the gamut

A celebratory relationship with food

People need to be reminded that food can actually taste good. I think many people have forgotten what a tomato tastes like. If you go to Stop & Shop in December and buy a tomato and you eat it, it usually tastes like cardboard. When you come to a farmersí market and buy a tomato in season and eat it, itís a completely different experience. And I think once you have that experience, you suddenly start to realize the value of eating seasonally and of waiting until June for those strawberries because they taste amazing in June, but they donít taste nearly as good when theyíve been sitting on a truck and driven 1,500 miles to get to you.  They just donít taste the same as when theyíve been picked this morning and traveled only 20 miles to get to the farmersí market. 

One of the amazing things about a farmersí market is that it introduces people to a celebratory relationship with food: All of these wonderful things can happen if you only would eat seasonally and eat locally.  Once you get someone hooked on local food, I think they start to conceive of food in a different way.  And I think that many of those people who will eat the cardboard tomato can be persuaded that there is another way to think about food. They need experiences like farmersí markets, like restaurants that source locally, to flip the switch.

At a farmersí market there are all of these teachable moments:  By the time a marketgoer has walked the length of Russo Park and looked at all the vendors, they know that corn is in season in the middle of July, that plums are in season. That weíre going to have to wait until next June for strawberries. And they donít even realize they just learned a bunch of things. One of our other strategies is to hand them a market newsletter that has nutritional information on the back and a recipe of the week, again promoting this idea that food should be: It should taste good; it should be nutritious; it is something to be celebrated and enjoyed.

Community support helped sow CitySeed

In terms of getting CitySeed started, we were very fortunate that the city and different departments of the city were forward-thinking enough to realize that a farmersí market could revitalize the neighborhood, could address health issues in terms of increasing access to local healthy food. So we had the support of the city from the beginning, which is extremely helpful.

For example, we opened up on July 17th and the following week I got an e-mail from the head of traffic and parking, and he says, ďHey, we have this electric trolley that goes around downtown New Haven. Why donít we just add a leg so it comes by the market on Saturdays?Ē They did this for us for free, which is amazing. The mayor has been very supportive, especially as we reach out to other neighborhoods.

I also need to say that Yale University was very supportive. They have a housing and community development clinic at the law school law school students who work with community organizations, non-profits, to help them become incorporated. We dealt with all of our paperwork with them. I donít think we could have done that on our own. I mean, the IRS really needs to know a farmers' market, which is generating money for farmers should be considered a non-profit. It was the law school students who helped convince them that this was not a money-making machine; this was a non-profit organization about nutrition, education, community building and a sustainable food system.

Growing farmersí markets farther afield

Itís interesting that we had one farmers market in New Haven last year; now we have four. We have now been approached by people who live in surrounding towns who say, ďWe would really love a farmers market in our town."

I donít think weíre ready yet to be like France, where they have these lovely little farmersí markets in every little town, because we just donít have the critical mass of people thinking about these issues. But I hope that we get there. I think the dream would be that any different day of the week you could go to a farmersí market because every town, essentially, has one.

I think you need the density of a city to make something like this work. New Haven is a small city, but itís a city and you have the population density to support 15 farmers at a farmersí market. I donít think you could do that in a suburb of New Haven. I donít think you would get the same number of people coming during that four-hour window during the market.

The farmers who come to market

CitySeed works with 24 different farms and vendors. We even have a woman who makes goatís milk soap from the milk of her own goat, which I think is amazing. We have a few prepared-food people, as well. We like to support local food entrepreneurs. Each farmersí market has a different mix of vendors, and there are farms at each market that only go to that market. So each market has its own character.

Working with the farmers has been one of the more enjoyable aspects of this job. I may live in the city but I get to go visit farms; I get to meet farmers and spend time on farms. And I think for farmers, the climate in which they work is difficult. I think there are developers knocking on their door saying Iíll give you this money for your farmland. And I think at farmersí markets the interaction with the public, the gratification I think they feel at the end of the day from people who really appreciate and understand what they are doing, probably helps keep them going.

Iíve had farmers at this market tell me that what they love about it is that the customers ask them questions and are interested in the food. And Iíve also have had customers tell me the farmers are so knowledgeable and they learn so much from being at the market. Jim Clinton, our honey guy, will sometimes bring his bees and do a little demonstration. Everyone here is willing to talk about what they do and excited to talk about what they do.

Whatís next for CitySeed?

I would say that the big dream of CitySeed would be to develop a public market downtown; so the goal would be a permanent building that would have all locally owned, primarily food-based businesses. It would be a place that would help incubate local businesses. You know hereís an interesting, let me see if I can get the statistic right; I donít have it memorized: If people would commit just 10 percent of their food budget to local food, then in a region like New Haven Ė including the city and the surrounding towns say about 300,000 people Ė it would be something like 40 million extra dollars into the local economy. So a public market would help community members make that kind of investment. It would allow them to buy food that hadnít traveled as far, was better for them, better tasting. And it would create a community space for the city.

Our model for New Haven would be the Redding Terminal Market in Philadelphia. When you walk into Redding Terminal Market, you get the feeling everyone in Philadelphia is there buying their food. I canít think of another gathering place in our culture that gathers together such a group of people on such a regular basis, and provides the opportunity for that kind of interaction.

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