Farmers’ markets could change the world. This idea may seem like hyperbole, but a morning spent at one of Portland’s many farmers’ markets has a tendency to coax a person toward ebullience. Perhaps it’s being surrounded by the vibrantly hued fruit, flowers and vegetables – leading one towards unbridled optimism. Or it might be the secret ingredient included in the samples of cherry chutney that instills a lingering hope. Either way, one has the distinct sense that while wandering among the vendors and patrons that there might be something to this idea of sustainability that seems so currently en vogue in progressive communities throughout the United States.
The idea is fairly simple. By buying local goods and produce, money is kept in the local economy and rural land use by small family farms is sustained, reducing the environmental impact of corporate farming operations. Likewise, the environmental impact of cross-country shipping is also reduced. Individuals who are eating food from small local farms have fresh and healthy options, connecting them directly to the source of their diet. For all of these reasons Mayor Tom Potter, in association with regional farmers markets, has put together the Eat Local Challenge. The program encourages Portland residents to buy and eat food that has been produced in the region by allowing participants to sign a pledge to spend 10 percent of their grocery budget on local food, try a new fruit or vegetable every week or preserve food for the winter. Participants in the challenge can then mark their progress using a scorecard that can later be used to enter into a drawing for various prize packages. The pledge cards and scorecards are available at all local farmers’ markets. (A similar campaign is being promoted in San Francisco by a group calling themselves “locavores,” who have dubbed the 100-mile radius around the city center the San Francisco a “foodshed.”)
It is not surprising that both Portland and San Francisco should be promoting similar sustainability campaigns, considering that both cities have been contending for the title of “Most Sustainable City in America” awarded by the web site Sustainlane.com. Portland was slated to win the number one spot, but a last-minute discovery of several new San Francisco farmers’ markets booted us to number two.
Of course, all of this is just academic unless there is a community that is willing to go to the markets and shop. And Portland farmers’ markets seem to have gone out of their way to make the experience entertaining and enjoyable, prompting a good deal of return business from shoppers.
On a recent Saturday in the PSU Park Blocks the lilting melody of a jazz combo could be heard above the noise of the market. Community members browsed the booths laconically. Various small farms with names like Persephone and Goodtaste buzzed with activity, selling everything from cherries to potatoes.
Patrons of the market range from the tragically hip to the triumphantly elderly. Women push carriages in which infants share space with bight bags of tomatoes. Dogs sniff at the edges of boxes of produce and an armada of pigeons cruises the central eating area, waiting for someone to drop a golden fleck of their tamale.
The most popular booths appear to be those that sell fresh seafood. Everything from clams and muscles to whole crabs and salmon can be found, brought from the coast in large coolers that are thoroughly picked through by the market’s closing. There are other booths that sell meat, which may shock some who have always assumed that the farmers’ market is a strictly vegetarian affair. There are booths for both beef and poultry raised on small farms where the animals most likely had names and led happy lives, at least until the end. The point here is that this meat has one degree of separation from your table. You are purchasing your future fried chicken from the man that most likely wielded the axe. That’s about as close as you can get to your dinner without hunting it yourself.
By noon, most of the serious shoppers have returned to their home with bags full of the choice picks of the market. According to some vendors there are often lines forming in front of specific booths well before the 8 a.m. bell rings, opening the market.
However, there are still some serious shoppers roaming the booths toward the afternoon. These individuals carry large canvas bags and have that look of determination that can commonly be found on the faces of endurance athletes.
They pick through the vegetables looking for that perfect quart of berries or the best summer bouquet. The rest of the shoppers are a bit more lackadaisical, stopping at every other booth to sample artisan bread, pastries, berries, cheese, chutney, vegetables and various sauces and dips offered in little plastic cups. If one played one’s cards right, an entire lunch could be easily made by grazing on the numerous samples.
Nevertheless, if the samples do not suffice, a row of food vendors are ready to appease the lurking hunger. The sausage sandwiches are a favorite among carnivores, while the tamales from Salvador Molly’s could easily satisfy any vegetarian.
For the people
To add to the attraction, the farmers’ market on the PSU Park Blocks now includes cooking demonstrations from local chefs. Unsure about how to cook that Swiss chard that you’ve been eyeing? These folks can help. So can the vendors. Most will be able to rattle off several recipes for the goods the serve. After all, what they are selling you probably also makes up a substantial portion of their diet. When was the last time the clerk at the mega chain store was able to relate a fine goat cheese recipe?
Not only is the food at the farmers’ market healthy, but so is the attitude. An aura of optimism seems to blanket the market, stemming most likely from the organizers nod towards good social policy.
For example, at most area farmers’ markets, Oregon Trail cards are gladly accepted, allowing low-income families to break the chain of buying high-calorie prepared foods that have low nutritional value, a cycle that has helped make Oregon not only one of the most obese states but also one of the most hungry. The lower, direct-to-consumer prices at the farmers’ market also helps the money go further.
Farmers’ markets could change the world – they foster social responsibility, environmental responsibility and healthy alternatives away from inherently exploitive corporations. Not to mention they are exponentially more fun than your local grocery store.
More information about the Eat Local Challenge and a full list of special events occurring over the next two months in association with the campaign can be found at www.eatlocal.net. A full list of the numerous farmers’ markets in the Portland area can be found at the Oregon Farmers’ Market Association at www.oregonfarmersmarkets.org. It is almost guaranteed that there is a market close to your neighborhood.