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.

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.

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

HOC Farmers Market Faces Uncertain Future 24 June,2008Thy Tran

  • Thy

    I received an email with a correction to my post:

    Hi Thy,

    I read your blog post today on KQED and wanted to correct something you wrote that is not accurate: “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 Nationís 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, isnít good, clean or fair enough to take part.”

    Sarah Weiner, our content director, met with Christine Adams in May to see how we could work together and ensure that the Slow Food Nation Market supports and promotes the Heart of the City market rather than competing. They had a great meeting, and Christine encouraged several of her vendors to apply for the SFN Market. Two of them did apply – Yerena Farms and Marshall Farms Honey – and both were accepted and will be part of the SFN Market.

    In addition, we will be listing on all market stalls the names of additional farmers’ markets where that farmer or producer sells, in hopes of encouraging Slow Food Nation visitors to make a habit of visiting farmers markets year-round.

    Lauren Mendez, our Justice Director, also spoke with Christine about how to reach a diverse audience as we admire the market’s success in creating a true community-utilized market that makes fresh food accessible.

    Slow Food Nation is dedicated to creating a framework for deeper environmental connection to our food and aims to inspire and empower Americans to build a food system that is sustainable, healthy and delicious. If you have any questions, please let me know.

    Regards, ns

    Naomi Starkman
    Communications & Policy Director
    Slow Food Nation

  • Thy

    I thanked Naomi for letting me know about the outreach to the Civic Center market and am glad to hear that two farmers who sell there were accepted as vendors at the SFN market.

    I’m still wondering, though, if there weren’t a better way to highlight local markets without pulling the farmers away from their regular markets? I’ve received comments from some small producers about this already.

    My own concerns were not about specific, successful farmers being included but rather how we, as a city or as a community of concerned food professionals, support very small, community-based markets in all our neighborhoods.

    It seems to me that the best way to encourage people to go to established markets is to do events or educational outreach at those locations over time. That approaches the kind of deeper behavior shift that leads to structural changes — if one is going to talk about creating a deeper environmental connection to our food — rather than one-time, showcase events that consume much energy and funds.

  • Thy, Thanks for a reasonable article on the HOC Market. I was writing about attending the Budget Committee meeting on the 19th of June and wanted to do a little research about a market I’ve been going to since 1987.


  • Corinne Cadon

    Can you tell me the name of the current non-profit that runs Heart of the City?

    thank you,
    Corinne Cadon
    tel 415 695-5601 (work)
    tel 415 821-7762 (home)


Thy Tran

Thy Tran writes literary nonfiction about food, the rituals of the kitchen, and the many ways eating and cooking both connect and separate communities around the world. She co-authored the award-winning guide, Kitchen Companion, and her work has appeared in numerous other books, including Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide and Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. A recipient of a literary grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Thy is currently working on a collection of essays about how food changes in families across time and place.

Though trained as a professional chef, she works on cookbooks by day, then creates literary chapbooks by night. An old letterpress and two cabinets of wood and lead type occupy a corner of her writing studio, for she is as committed to the art and craft of bookmaking as she is to the power of words themselves. In addition to writing, editing, teaching and printing, Thy remains active in local food justice and global food sovereignty movements. Visit her website, wanderingspoon.com, to learn more about her culinary adventures.

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