The city of Oakland is known for many things: its signature “hyphy” hip-hop movement, the Black Panther party, an endless sea of shipyards and a skyrocketing homicide rate.
But farmers’ markets?
Oakland has nine of them, according to a list of local farmers’ markets published by Alameda County’s Department of Public Health last April, and that’s not even the most recent tally. One more has since popped up, bringing the city seven more markets than Oakland’s notoriously green-friendly, food-conscious neighbor to the north, Berkeley, can boast.
According to market organizers, Oakland’s dramatic boom in farmers’ markets is merely a reflection of a growing national trend in response to mounting concerns about the quality and safety of mass-produced and imported produce. Consumers are increasingly picky about what they put into their bodies. At farmers’ markets, shoppers can meet the very people who picked their produce and purchase food that was harvested when ripe.
The next time you find yourself standing in a supermarket aisle looking suspiciously at a fluorescent-lit waxy red pepper, head down to one of these many sites to experience first-hand what all the fuss is about. The choices can be dizzying, so here’s a guide to assist you in finding some of the most unique and popular markets.
Featuring bounce houses for kids, electro-acoustic entertainment, dozens of farmers’ stalls, delicious hot food vendors and a handful of artist booths, the Grand Lake farmers’ market is one of Oakland’s largest and most popular. Every Saturday the otherwise empty Splash Pad Park overflows with smiling shoppers, laden with bags of produce and fresh flowers, who spill out of the park and into the bustling crosswalks. With plenty of entertainment for kids, this market is particularly popular among young families, and the sound of children’s laughter almost drowns out the steady hum of nearby freeway traffic. The crowd is multiracial, friendly and health-conscious.
Gloria Sanders is an Oakland native who quit her job as a landscaper for the city to open Your Backyard Bar-B-Que stand. Sanders, whose distinctive Oakland-style cooking draws lines around the block, says she tried working other markets but didn’t like them as much as the one at Grand Lake. According to Sanders, the people here are friendlier and the location is safer. “I’m dedicated to this market. I wouldn’t give it up,” says Sanders.
Located in the heart of the Fruitvale district, this market’s small size-with only six vendors-is intentional, according to organizer Tom Limon.
“We started out with more farmers and a larger variety. . . but it didn’t work for our customer base,” Limon says.
Limon works for the Unity Council, a non-profit organization based out of the Fruitvale district that runs the market. He says the farmers’ market started six months ago as a method of combating high rates of chronic disease, like diabetes and heart disease, that are endemic to the area. Limon explains that while the neighborhood is flooded with stores that sell produce, not many of them carry high-quality fresh fruits and vegetables. The Unity Council also launched an incentive program with organizations like La Clinica de la Raza to provide patients with vouchers that they can redeem at the market for healthy food.
According to Limon, the primary aim of the Fruitvale market is to service the community. “The farmers working here reflect the ethnic background of the neighborhood, and they are all from small family farms,” says Limon. “In the mornings, we have mostly Asian families coming to shop, and they speak with the Asian vendors. In the afternoons, we have Latino families, and they speak with the Latino vendors.”
Mo Better Foods
Also founded with community health in mind, the Mo Better Foods market features a small number of vendors without sacrificing variety. Here a preserves vendor, resident deejay and VHS tape vendor share court with local farmers.
The market was also started to give residents a much needed community meeting space. “The only time people come out of their houses to talk to each other is when there’s a lot of trouble,” says Leroy Musgraves, who commutes from his farm in Livingstone to sell his produce at the market. “We’re trying to provide a positive space. A space for people to come together and exchange information about health [and] diet.”
Vendors at Mo Better Foods reflect the predominantly African-American composition of the neighborhood. Market founder David Roach explained that West Oakland used to be a thriving center of black business and was referred to as the ‘Harlem of the West.’
Get it while it’s fresh:
Fruitvale Transit village
Jack London Square
West Oakland/Mo Better
East Oakland Faith Deliverance Center
East Oakland Senior Center
“We’re hoping that this market can ignite a similar kind of vibrancy in West Oakland. This is a smaller market, but the intimacy has really allowed farmers to develop relationships with local businesses and restaurants,” says Roach.
Michelle Scott of Scott Family Farms commutes from Fresno to work the market because she wanted to make healthy food available to West Oakland’s residents. Currently, the neighborhood has only one grocery store. “Bringing fresh produce into the community is very important, so we’re proud,” Scott says.
Don’t leave this market without trying one of the Scott family’s peaches, and if you’re still hungry after that, wash it down with a deliciously hot bowl of jambalaya from a neighboring stand.
At barely three months old, this market is Grand Lake’s only contender as far as sheer size and number of vendors. The crowd is mostly white, but Temescal’s shoppers are diverse in age. “We get everyone from students to young families to senior citizens,” says On-Site Market Manager James Cochran. He says the market has drawn a large number of customers since day one.
Despite the market’s large size, it remains ideal for the claustrophobic shopper. The spacious DMV parking lot’s aisles are wide enough to accommodate Governor Schwarzenegger’s Hummer, and the extra room to maneuver contributes to the market’s laid-back and friendly atmosphere. Also relaxing is the eucalyptus-lined creek located directly adjacent to the market, which attracts sun-weary shoppers and bored kids alike.
Food For Thought
If you still haven’t found the farmers’ market of your dreams, remember there are still six more to choose from. Most of the market organizers, vendors and shoppers I spoke with insisted that each market has a flavor and atmosphere of its own. But when asked which one is best to frequent, they pretty much shared Roach’s opinion: “Support all farmers’ markets. Support all farmers.”