The Power of Farmers' Markets: Gabriella Stern of GrowNYC

Photograph courtesy of Gabriella Stern

In celebration of National Farmers' Market Week and the launch of our new Seasonal Food Guide app and website, we wanted to amplify the voices of those who help to make farmers' markets successful and viable for us all. We chatted with Gabriella Stern, the Publicity Manager for GrowNYC's (NYC's largest farmer's market organization!) Union Square Greenmarket about the role farmers' markets play in cultivating a resilient food system and her hopes for how markets can continue to expand access in an ever-changing food system. 

You have been involved with farmers' markets in varying capacities for quite some time now. What first inspired you to work with farmers markets?

I first began working at farmers' markets while I was at Skidmore College in upstate NY, helping to found what is now the Skidmore Community Garden and working part-time at the Saratoga Farmers' Market during the summers. It was beautiful, and I loved being part of a community totally separate from college. After graduation, I was hired by GrowNYC, where I've been for three years managing Greenmarkets in the Bronx, Brooklyn, lower Manhattan and now the flagship Union Square Greenmarket. Living in New York City, it's incredible to find a connection not only to upstate NY, but also to the five other states that encompass the region that we define as local (~200 mile radius around Poughkeepsie). I can't help but smile every time I get off the subway and see farmers setting up their stands, overflowing with produce year round. I'm inspired every day by the community that exists within a Greenmarket.

The socio-economic benefits of supporting a regional food system are pivotal: just 1.75 acres of Union Square Park (used for the Greenmarket) helps keep 12,000 acres of farmland in production. 

In what ways do farmers' markets nourish local community and support sustainable food systems?

Here in NYC, the Greenmarket network of markets extends to all five boroughs. This includes full-scale Greenmarkets, Youthmarkets (youth-run farm stands in underserved neighborhoods), Fresh Food Box (an affordable weekly box of regional produce), and Greenmarket Co. (our wholesale/ food hub division). We have created a system that is constantly expanding to accommodate the changing foodscape of NYC. In each community that we support, we work with community partners, neighbors and schools to make our markets as accessible and welcoming as possible. We take pride in our markets, as they are public community spaces which bring together the rural and urban.

Not only do local markets provide physical nourishment, but they also stimulate the local economy. This is huge! Without a major food-selling market such as NYC, regional farmland would be lost to development, farmers would be unemployed or underemployed and our regional food shed would be depleted and heavily replaced with imports from other states and abroad.  Of course, there are countless environmental benefits of shopping local, but I think the socio-economic benefits of supporting a regional food system are pivotal: just 1.75 acres of Union Square Park (used for the Greenmarket) helps keep 12,000 acres of farmland in production. 

What are some of the successes that markets have experienced in the past few years, both regionally and nationally?

Nationally, we continue to see a growing interest in farmers' markets. I think it's fabulous when a farmers' market is a destination spot for a city. Food culture and the media have helped spread this idea that shopping at a farmers' market is fun, and the food you purchase there, picked at peak ripeness, is much tastier and of a higher quality than food that has traveled many miles to get to your plate.

Regionally, there are farmers' markets everywhere. I grew up in Westchester County, which is not considered upstate NY nor "the city." Even though I grew up snug in the middle of one of the most agriculturally productive regions on the East Coast and in a city with some of the best restaurants in the country, access to a variety of fresh, local food proved difficult up until a few years ago. Moving further upstate for college was the first time I ever experienced growing my own food in a community garden and getting involved with a local farmers market. Now, in just a few short years, New York has incentivized local shopping and there's been an expansion of smaller weekend farmers' markets. This is an encouraging sign that there's not only the desire, but also an economically viable market to sell goods directly to the customer. Simply put, if the farmers' market can keep farmers farming and keep the career of a farmer a respectable one, then that market is successful.

What are some of the biggest challenges that farmers' markets face?

Without a doubt, climate change is the biggest challenge for farmers. For centuries, farmers have adapted to weather changes, but global climate change is a major hurdle. Farmers must rethink and redesign their farm plans to adapt to a rapidly changing ecosystem. Last year, there was a devastating late season winter frost that led to a total loss of stone fruit across the Northeast - this was a climate related issue that led to income loss for farmers. This year, in contrast, we are in the midst of one of the best years for stone fruit! Needless to say, farming is dependent on the weather.

Secondary to that are competition from other food purchasing outlets and changing city demographics, which I think go hand-in-hand. As populations change from more family-oriented neighborhoods to commuter-based neighborhoods, the foodscape changes from smaller grocers to convenience-based businesses. Nationwide, we've experienced a boom in food delivery services, meal planning kits, and online shopping. Many of these outlets recognize the public's desire to support "local farmers" and co-opt that messaging. I think farmers' markets will always thrive because, unlike shopping online, shoppers can actually talk to the farmers, their neighbors, and interact with their community.

It's important to recognize the challenges that farmers' markets face. As a public market system, we take education seriously. It's in our best interest to keep our customers privy to the advantages of supporting regional farming without downplaying the challenges.

The Greenmarket network is incredibly expansive. What steps are you taking to continue to increase farmers' market access?

Simply put, if the farmers' market can keep farmers farming and keep the career of a farmer a respectable one, then that market is successful.

As always, our mission is two-fold: to promote regional agriculture by providing a direct market for small family farms to sell their farmed goods, and to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to regional, local, seasonal, nutritious produce. We have over 50 Greenmarkets across the five NYC boroughs, and every season we open new markets. Recently we opened Greenmarkets in Flushing, Queens and Fordham Plaza in the Bronx.

When we talk about access, we are cognizant of affordability and commodity balance. Each year we work with federal and state entities to expand our SNAP reach, including a year-round Health Buck coupon program, which was previously only available from July-November. Now, all year round, SNAP customers can receive an extra two dollars for every five dollars they spend. In 2016, one million SNAP dollars were spent at our markets. That's pretty amazing!

As a 41-year-old farmers' market program, we are constantly working with partners across the country and internationally to share ideas about managing markets. It's great to know that while we have this one program in NYC, we are evolving and growing with a larger community of famers' market commerce.

What potential do you see for the growth of farmers' markets within our food system?

One major area is technology. There are many facets of this, but for this dialogue I'm interested in mobile and e-commerce technology. There's incredible untapped economic potential that farmers could see if they transitioned to electronic POS systems. If farmers tracked not only daily sales, but food purchasing trends, season after season, that would be incredible helpful in farm planning. We have developed a smartphone app for the Union Square Greenmarket, which directs customers to the daily attendance and produce list. It's popular with customers and incredibly helpful, as it contains a large amount of metadata useful for inventory and tracking. It's been exciting to plan the app and consider all of its potential. Our food system is constantly changing, and it's important to us to think about how to maintain the traditions of shopping at a farmer's market while balancing the developments in an ever-changing food system.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect those of the Ecocentric Blog or GRACE Communications Foundation.

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