How Design Can Help Farmers' Markets Feed a Growing Demand

A century ago, you probably wouldn't have spent your Saturday morning lugging local produce back from a farmers' market because chances were, like...

A century ago, you probably wouldn't have spent your Saturday morning lugging local produce back from a farmers' market because chances were, like the other 95 percent of America, you lived on a farm. But today the numbers are flipped: Now most of our country's population lives in cities, and less than 1 percent of our population are farmers. For any major city, it's the same story: As our food production slips further and further afield, our urban residents have suffered—physically and economically—from a lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Luckily, according to a story about farmers' markets in our 12th issue, the number of markets nationwide is almost 5,000 (up from 1,755 in 1994) which certainly demonstrates that demand for local, fresh food has increased. I don't know about you, but I've never seen my local farmers' market so crowded. But even as a cultural shift has occurred in our relationship with food, the open-air farmers' market as we know it hasn't changed all that much in the last 30 years. How will these local farmers continue to supply our urban demands?

Thirty years ago, Vance Corum was one of the founders of the first authorized farmers' market in California, which opened in Gardena in 1979. The weekly, open-air market became a model for farmers' markets across the state and rippled inland. "Farmers' markets are coming of age. Customers want beautiful, abundant marketplaces and farmers need large crowds of people," he says. "Farmers have plenty of production; the challenge is for us to create strong markets in cities and towns across America that recreate and improve upon the local food systems of the past." But to serve those crowds, the traditional market is begging for innovation at every stage, from pieces that can aid the loading, packing, and transporting of foods, as well as the vending systems, which Corum says farmers have been ingeniously building themselves. "What would be especially valuable is a compact, easy to assemble, interlocking table and display system that is flexible, strong and rigid to show off two or three tiers of product on a slant."

Due to the locations and accessibility of farmers' markets, fresh fruits and vegetables aren't always reaching the often-underserved communities who most need affordable, healthy produce. Mobile produce vehicles are finding their ways into cities as a cheap and efficient way to bring produce to the people. The Greener Grocer's Veggie Van delivers its wares on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, and is equipped with technology to accept credit cards and EBT credit, the electronic equivalent of food stamps. Small business advocates Mercy Corps worked with the branding agency Saatchi & Saatchi helped to design food carts in Jakarta to help vendors make healthy snacks as attractive as ice cream trucks. And there are many farm-to-school programs like the one in Santa Monica, California where the public school district has bought farmers' market produce for their salad bars for 11 years. Corum says even kids really do know the difference: "When really fresh farmers' market produce was substituted for produce from the wholesale terminal, the number of kids choosing the salad bar quintupled from eight percent to forty percent."

Even if farmers can get their produce to a local, temporary market they're still selling at smaller scales—farmers' markets themselves only move about 1% of the food consumed in the United States—and their audience is mostly single families and chefs for smaller restaurants. Websites like Foodzie—an online farmers market where small food producers and growers can sell their product—might help, but for farmers who want to move larger quantities of produce, getting local tomatoes made into local tomato sauce, for example, is extremely difficult. "Currently the potential supply of local food is restricted by an economically monolithic system of production, processing and distribution," says Vanessa Zajfen, program manager for The Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College in Los Angeles. So, especially for large metropolitan areas, there's the need for a "hub," or terminal, for local farmers to deliver, distribute and process their produce.

"We need market designs that will provide year-round direct marketing opportunities for farmers and create vibrant public spaces with food at its core," says Zajfen, who points to a space like the Santa Caterina Market in Barcelona, Spain, which received a beautiful renovation and shimmery ceramic roof by Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue in 2005. The Barcelona market functions as not only a wholesale terminal, but a beloved retail and dining destination where local food is processed into delectable tapas served under the same roof. "This is the oldest market in Barcelona; it was opened in 1848," she says. "Its modern redesign has kept this market relevant and functional." (For more innovative permanent market designs, see Peter Smith's story on GOOD: "The Public Market Renaissance.")

A contemporary answer to Barcelona's example might be the New City Market, a concept by Vancouver-based citylab, that will create a 21,000 sq. ft. year-round indoor-outdoor farmers market, wholesale food distribution, commercial processing facility, business development, local food advocacy and, conference space, and will also push the form when it comes to sustainability. A market like this could be at the center of a sustainable food policy for a city, like the one recently unveiled in San Francisco. Instead of the traditional farmers' market channel, farmers would have multiple options to sell to consumers, says Zafjen. "A shift in our system of food delivery to an increased variety of direct marketing methods would be an important step in the development of a sustainable regional food system."

Of course, another option is bringing those rural farms closer to the people. Dickson Despommier's Vertical Farms concepts, towering skyscraper greenhouses in high-density areas, and the The Science Barge (above), a floating sustainable farm in New York, are both non-traditional ways that family farmers could produce and deliver their food to growing city populations. And there are hundreds of outdoor classrooms across the country that bring food production right into schools, the most famous being Alice Waters's Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California. These teaching gardens tap the engaged expertise of community chefs, producing local food that can be given back or sold to neighborhood restaurants. And they might even be recruiting a few future farmers along the way.

Can you design a better way to bring locally-produced food to urban residents? Enter our Redesign Your Farmers' Market contest by September 1.

Julian Meehan

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