By Marcy McMahon
Before working on the NYU Urban Farm, I was ignorant about the food growing process. I understood that shopping at the farmer’s market yielded healthier food than the supermarket. But at the farmer’s market, consumers only see the end result of the work put in to growing their food. Alternatively, while working at the NYU Urban Farm, we only see the initial processes of growing food. On a recent trip home I wanted to explore the connections between the farm and the consumer.
In my home city of Rochester, NY, the Public Market is centrally located. The premises contain three sheds, two open-air, and one enclosed. Open Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, 52 weeks a year, local vendors offer fresh produce, ethnic delicies, and speciality items. An array of independent local businesses are anchored on the grounds and in the surrounding district. The Public Market supports the exchange of food stamps for tokens that can be used as cash at the market. Other improvements include repurposing the old railroad bridge to be used as a pedestrian bridge and a solar energy project that will generate power for the market.
With the absence of a home garden growing up, my mother and I have enjoyed visiting the local public market for the past 4 years. What I love about the market is that you can eat seasonally effortlessly, which is somewhat of a new idea in my family, at least for my generation. My introduction to the market was through my great grandmother’s stories. As a child, my great grandmother recalled going to the market to buy a fresh chicken that she killed by twisting her hands in opposite directions to break its neck, any hesitation would allow the chicken to escape. In contrast, my grandmother, during the 50s and 60s, did not go to the market because it was difficult to find convenient parking and she purchased all her groceries at a grocery store in our town. My mother, coming of age during the 70s and 80s, remembers feeling the market was not safe due to its proximity to the inner city. But now the market is trendy and diverse.
At the Rochester Public Market, Jimmy is a grass-fed meat and egg farmer that does not use hormones or antibiotics. My mother warmly refers to him as her ‘egg guy;’ he was happy to talk more with me in depth. Talking with a farmer shed some light on what happens after harvesting food from the farm, but before consumers purchase it. While different from an urban farm, the farmer/vendor named Jimmy with whom I spoke operates on a larger farm, but he helped fill in some of my blanks. Jimmy leases one stall under a shed for $1400.00/year. Vendors need a tax identification number and paperwork applicable to their product prior to leasing a stall. With competing markets and large chain grocery stores, I still wonder how a small business owner survives financially within the market community.
A large white truck with scratches, rusty patches, and dirt provides a provisional backdrop to his stall. The bed of the truck is open and provides space for a few coolers. Picnic coolers are arranged on top and under three rectangular folding tables. One table provides space for his sign and transactions. Jimmy clamps several plastic bags for his customers who need a bag on another table. On the last table, Jimmy makes room for a calculator, pencil box, and scale. Cash from daily transactions is tucked under a cooler on top of the front table. The open shed also creates a space for flies to sit on chocolate covered cookies and for pigeons to walk freely under tables eating scraps of food that fall on the paved surface. Understanding the inner workings of a market helps me relate to the work I’m doing on the farm, bringing my personal food system full circle.