There's a subtle irony embedded in our current national craving for locally grown food: Cities, the antithesis of the countryside, have arguably become the easiest place to indulge in it. The rise of farmers' markets and buying clubs has transformed urban food possibilities and the economic viability of small American farmers. It's a radical shift, and one driven not by market forces or government, but by the work of a burgeoning cadre of activists from coast to coast. Driven by the belief that everyone should have access to fresh, local food, these visionaries are changing the contents of city shoppers' carts from Philadelphia's tony Society Hill to the gritty edges of Oakland, California.

One Stop Shop - Philadelphia, PA

A couple years ago, Veronica Uy, a staffer for the Philadelphia-based food justice group the Food Trust, got an intriguing assignment: Visit the country’s biggest and best farmers’ markets—and help create something similar in the City of Brotherly Love.

It was a perfect fit for Uy, a Filipina-Canadian transplant to the States who developed a passion for food markets during a trip to Southeast Asia. She’d recently dropped a fledgling career as a computer programmer to work on food issues, and the project came with a double lure. Not only would a flagship market appeal to Uy’s foodie instincts, (she’s an avid home cook) it would highlight the local produce available in the city—and help publicize the fact that in Philly, most farmers’ markets accept food stamps and other government benefit coupons.

“I went to [the farmers’ market] at DuPont Circle in D.C., and I saw they had a full-service dairy stand, and it was a Pennsylvania dairy,” says Uy. “My heart broke when I saw how many Pennsylvania people were at other markets. I mean, why weren’t they coming to Philly?”

The answer, she found, was that many farmers comfortable with doing direct sales wanted to sell their products at bigger, flagship markets. Though Philadelphia already boasts 29 farmers’ markets each week during peak season, most are smaller neighborhood affairs; producers were skeptical that a market in downtown Philly would be worth the trouble. Backed by the local Farmers Market Alliance and a coalition of other groups hoping to give New York’s Union Square farmers’ market a run for its money, Uy’s first task was to prove them wrong.

It worked. On July 1, Philadelphia’s Headhouse Market opened for business. Stretched beneath a brick, open-air market shed—the Headhouse Shambles—more than two dozen vendors sold their wares. By summer’s end, organizers plan to be selling produce—including five dozen varieties of heirloom tomatoes—alongside cut flowers, fresh-baked pastries and street foods like tacos and Vietnamese sandwiches.

Mary Seton-Corboy, who co-founded the Farmers Market Alliance and helped bring the Headhouse Market to fruition, is no stranger to both sides of the market equation: supply and demand.  As chief farmhand at Greensgrow Farm, a 9-year-old working farm in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, she understands that farmers need to be assured that they’ll sell most of their wares. She also knows that consumers, accustomed to supermarkets, expect an all-in-one shopping experience. It’s a feat that organizers are betting Uy can pull off.

“Nicky’s very consumer friendly, which is helpful because you have to bridge between the farmers and the consumers,” says Seton-Corboy of Uy, adding that it often takes a gentle touch. “It’s her job to try and explain what farmers’ markets are, and why there aren’t watermelons in May.”

One of the benefits of opening the Headhouse Market, says Uy, is the potential for a ripple effect once people understand that they can pay with food stamps. The press given to Headhouse because of its prime location could spur people of all incomes to seek out their smaller markets, too.

“We’d never be able to get a news crew to our neighborhood markets,” says Uy. “With the kind of coverage that we get for Headhouse, it’s much easier to let people know that we take food stamps.” (Though many farmers’ markets nationwide cannot accept food stamps because they now come on debit cards, the Food Trust funds wireless terminals at 15 of the 19 markets it runs in the city, including Headhouse.)

The biggest reward for Uy comes in small doses. Before the market opened, she pestered friends to come check it out. When she saw a good friend of hers on opening day, Uy thanked her for coming. “And she thanked me for giving her somewhere to shop that has everything she wants to buy,” says Uy. “That was one of best compliments I got.”

Story by Tracie McMillan. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in June 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Continue reading this series

Soil to stoops: Detroit

Soil to stoops: Philadelphia

Soil to stoops: Oakland

Soil to stoops: Brooklyn

Soil to stoops: New Orleans