Why is it so hard to find fresh, locally grown produce in my area of Staten Island, NY?

October 2005

Dear Laura,

Why is it so hard to find fresh, locally grown produce in my area of Staten Island, NY? I have never met a grocer in a supermarket or so called fruit & veg market. They are merchants who could just as easily be selling batteries for all they care! It has actually taken about 2 months to find a yellow onion that wasn't completely rotten in this area. Our closest "Farmers Market" sells the same rotten looking produce as any supermarket and the people selling the stuff were too busy to even answer a question about the origins of their produce. I do not know what to do! Must I move to another state? I used the farm locator on the Farm Aid website and it seems that I must move several hundred miles away to find what I'm looking for.  Any suggestions?

Jennifer Daniele
NY State

Dear Jennifer,

Thank you for writing with this excellent question. I was really surprised to read about the produce and staff attitudes at your local market. Generally, a farmers market is the best place to get the freshest produce possible and to learn about your food right from the person who grew it. Not to mention that buying direct is the very best way to ensure that your dollars go right to the farmer - no grocery store can boast all that! In fact Zachary Lyons, the Executive Director of the Washington State Farmers Market Association, assured me "for freshness and nutritional value you can't beat [products sold at] farmers markets and getting the farmer your full retail dollar is also one of the best ways to keep them on the land." AND it is fun

As a side note, the important of the role of farmers markets in keeping farmers in the land is coming into play right now as we are hearing from many, many farmers who are struggling, not only because their crops were damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but also because their urban market places were damaged in the storms. Markets are important and caring consumers are what make them work.

I spent some time researching how to start a new Farmer's market and I soon realized how much work that was so I stepped back. Maybe the real answer is to think about how can we help your market?

You don't have to move to another state- you just have to be willing to become a real part of the food system. It's probably going to take your involvement (or someone like you) to changes things around.

I started thinking about how different your market experience was from those that I conjure up of my local markets. A number of questions immediately jumped to mind.

The first would be for the farmers market that you have identified in your community: how many farmers are selling at this market? If there is limited selection and the produce does not appear fresh, this stand could be selling produce from anywhere under the disguise of a farm stand or market. The fact is that to be considered a farmers market there have to be at least 5 farmers represented but city markets often have an excess of 40 producers present on market day. A variety of producers means a variety of product and that is one of the most exciting things about farmers markets.

If the market in your area is an actual farmers market but does not meet your needs there are a number of ways that you could go about improving your shopping experience:

Step One: Find a market that you like. Simple right? But seriously, every farmers market is different. Some markets sell only fruits and veggies while others have a wide range of prepared foods, meats, cheeses and sometimes even fiber products. Other markets may have artisan vendors or musicians from time to time. The key here is that you need to identify what kind of market you would most like to see in your community. To find lists of farmers markets in the city go to the New York Federation of Farmers Markets, or the Green Market's New York listings (there is a listing for a market in Staten Island on this page that could be helpful). Now you have a plan - or at least a vision.

Step Two: Go back to your market. Ask how it is organized or if you can speak with the site/market coordinator. Making this contact will help you understand how this market is run and what the specific goals and limitations of this particular market may be. Things you want to know about are diversity of vendors, products and how far they travel. Now, take a step back. How does your vision of a "good" market mesh with what you have learned about your local market? What things can be changed or improved?

Step Three: Jump in! Find out how to get involved. Running a market is hard work! If you want to make it better, ask the coordinator how you could get involved. Is there a board of directors? Advisory committee? Volunteer jobs to help promote the market or enlist to new vendors? Sometimes all it takes is someone with a little time and passion to add to the mix and make a change.

Okay, now the tricky part. Going back to whether or not your market is actually a farmers market: if the answer is no this is a slightly more challenging question. The Green Markets and the NY Farmers Market Federation are still probably the best place to start. They will be able to provide you with resources and classes that will enable you to determine what the best way to get a real market into your community would be. Other organizations that can help you make connections directly with producers would be the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, and Cooperative Extension Services through Cornell University.

Once again, here in the world of Ask Laura, your great question points us to the tip of the iceberg. Our food systems have gotten pretty complicated and it takes some hard work to bring the change you want to your community. BUT, at the end of the day, what better rewards could there be than heirloom tomatoes, organic strawberries, artisan cheeses, homemade bread, knitted socks, a little dirt under your finder nails and a full belly?

Don't forget to email me with your stories - asklaura@farmaid.org

Until next time,

Laura - The Farm Aid Shopper/Researcher/Question Answerer Extraordinaire!