HOC Farmers Market Faces Uncertain Future

Heart of the City Farmers Market
(Photo by trp0.)

There’s been a lot of buzz lately in San Francisco about planting gardens at Civic Center and bringing in a special farmers market for Slow Food Nation's big Labor Day blowout. No surprise that the farmers market just across the street, the one that’s been a neighborhood fixture for the past 26 years, isn’t good, clean or fair enough to take part.

Truth be told, some of us were happy that the Heart of the City wasn’t getting an all-star makeover. It’s fine the way it is, humming along in its quiet, humble way as a workaday market. The Tenderloin shoppers don't need to worry about mobs of tourists elbowing their way in for bits of free fruit, Whole Foodies complaining about the smell of live chickens or lines of groggy hipsters waiting for their espresso drinks.

Residents have been actively fighting gentrification, the inevitable physical and cultural displacement that accompanies economic development, and the neighborhood farmers market is their newest battleground. On Thursday, at a special meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, one seemingly innocuous agenda item -- "Revocation of Permit for U.N. Plaza Farmer’s Market" -- had to be tabled after public outcry, including a flood of calls from local residents and market vendors.

Mayor Gavin Newsom's quickly reversed his proposal for City Hall's Real Estate Division to assume control of the Heart of the City Farmers Market. No residents, vendors or shoppers were consulted. Market manager, Christine Adams, who has been heading the market since it first opened, learned about the City's idea when it sent her a job application.

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Change is always difficult. As the oldest continuously running farmers market in the city, there's certainly room for improvement. An overworked and underfunded nonprofit currently manages the Heart of the City Farmers' Market. The key, though, in any type of development, is respecting all stakeholders while weighing the benefits of short-term gain against long-term goals.

Heart of the City Farmers Market
Schoolkids learning about strawberries from Yerena Farms.

From the City's point of view, the permits are stale. It would like to increase the nominal $1 lease to $5,000 to help cover the cost of cleaning the plaza, double the stall fee from $25 a day to $50 a day, and -- most contentious of all -- take 2% of profits. Farmers currently sit on the nonprofit management company's board of directors, so the City has offered to include farmers on an advisory committee. By combining operations with the Alemany Farmers Market, also run by the Real Estate Division, it expects to increase efficiency and economies of scale.

Opponents counter with the age-old question: Why fix something that's not broke? The market only makes $13,000 a year, which it currently spends on outreach and compostable bags. It seems a rather cheap blow to try filling city coffers from the pockets of small farmers and from low-income residents who are just trying to find some fresh produce in the middle of one of the city's most arid, asphalt-ridden food deserts. With the rising cost of gas, the smallest farmers will be the most vulnerable when faced with increased fees. On the other side of the market transactions, shoppers are pinching pennies more and more as the dollar becomes ever weaker.

Talks continue. There's a good chance the Real Estate Division will back off, and there's hope that the City will arrive at a compromise with the market management on fees.

Raj Patel, policy analyst for the think tank, Food First, and author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, says that despite the neighborhood's ability to push back the City, it’s hard to know just how big a victory this is. “There’s no guarantee that this farmers market will be around five years from now. What’s actually needed is a comprehensive city plan for sustainability, to keep the market at UN Plaza and to encourage the formation of small farmers’ markets in other neighborhoods.”

Toronto has a Food Policy Council and Oakland has its Food System Assessment.
Isn't it time that San Francisco stop playing around with pretty exhibition gardens and boutique markets? Let's lead the way with bringing fresh food to as many of its citizens as possible.

We have plenty of good and clean. It's time for fair.

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*Update (6/23/08): See comments to read a statement emailed from Slow Food Nation.

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