Cultivating a Healthy Food System with CUESA’s Marcy Coburn

by Dawn Brighid

Published: 7/21/16, Last updated: 5/24/19

Integral to our sustainable food system are the farmers’ markets across the country where farmers can sell directly to their customers. One of the most iconic farmers’ markets in the country is in the beautiful Ferry Building in San Francisco, California. The market is run by an organization called Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), which not only manages the market, but also runs programs to support their community and connect them to where their food comes from. And this year, CUESA has opened a new market in another beautiful location in Oakland at Jack London Square.

We recently talked with Marcy Coburn, the passionate Executive Director of CUESA. Marcy has played a pivotal role in bringing sustainable agriculture and food issues into the mainstream, both nationally and statewide. She is responsible for leading CUESA, which educates Bay Area urban consumers about sustainable agriculture by creating links between urban dwellers, local farmers and food artisans. Marcy was raised in a farming family in the San Joaquin Valley, and has spent many years working in the food community in the Bay Area at the Food Craft Institute and Eat Real Festival, and Ecological Farming Association.

Can you tell us more about the role that farmers’ markets play in local/sustainable food systems in the Bay Area and around the country?

Farmers markets are an integral component of a healthy local food system. Not only because they provide direct sales opportunities for hard working farmers but because they bring neighbors and communities together. On a designated day of the week at a designated time, folks come together to not only buy beautiful food from the people who grew it, but also to connect with each other and the natural world that sustains us.


Ferry Plaza Farmers Market South

How excited are you about the new CUESA Jack London Square farmers’ market in Oakland, CA? Do many of the same vendors sell at market at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market in San Francisco? How are the markets different? 

We are extremely excited! We have an almost completely different suite of farmers and sellers in Oakland than we have in San Francisco, and this is perfect. Our hope in expansion is to provide new opportunities for farmers and sellers who don’t have access to well run markets at this time. Women, people of color and local Oakland businesses are our biggest priorities. We are also very committed to building the market that is most wanted and needed by the neighborhood, we’re asking ‘who do you want here’ and ‘how can we add value to your community?’

On a designated day of the week at a designated time, folks come together to not only buy beautiful food from the people who grew it, but also to connect with each other and the natural world that sustains us.

In addition to the four farmers’ markets, CUESA runs food programs for elementary and high school kids — even cooking classes for adults. How do these programs support CUESA’s mission? 

CUESA’s mission is to cultivate a healthy food system and we do this by operating farmers’ markets, but also by empowering our next generation of eaters.

Foodwise Kids is an elementary school program that served 2,484 kids last school year. We bring the kids down for a tour of the farmers market, they get to shop and sample all of the amazing fruits and veggies, and then bring their selections into the CUESA outdoor kitchen classroom to prepare and eat a delicious snack. Kids leave with a new appreciation for fresh fruits and veggies and also knowledge about how farmers feed us all.

The high-school program (Schoolyard to Market) works with school gardens in high-schools, teaching gardening and cooking, and then we pay kids to harvest and sell what they grow at the farmers market. The high-school program is unique because it not only teaches gardening it is also a valuable lesson in entrepreneurship and professional development.


Food Wise Kids March 2015-99

Not to exclude the adults, our free weekly chef demos, cooking classes and farm tours also encourage of our shoppers to learn more about delicious, healthy, fresh food and how to prepare it.


Schoolyard to Market

How can farmers’ markets expand to their reach to all members of the community? How do you try to make that happen in both San Francisco and Oakland?

The interest in farmers’ markets is growing and more and more communities are opening markets and educating their community members about the availability of fresh food. California is such an abundant food shed that there are low cost items to be found at the farmers market year round. Melons in the summer at the market cost a fraction of what they cost in the spring or fall because they are in season! We have incredible, affordable greens and citrus in the winter, and tomatoes, corn, peaches, melons in the summer, hard squash in the fall, it goes on and on. All CUESA farmers markets take EBT and provide Market Match funds for EBT shoppers. That means an EBT customer can get $20 to spend on fresh fruits and vegetables for every $10 in food stamps.

What do you find to be your biggest source of inspiration day-to-day?

My greatest source of inspiration is the feeling that CUESA is connecting people to each other and to the natural world. Living in cities can be hard on the soul, cars and concrete and computers take a toll from us. Farmers’ markets, and the work we do at CUESA can get people out of harsh urban realms and connect them to the present moment of soil and air and the beautiful colors, textures, smells and tastes of nature.

CUESA’s four markets are open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at the Ferry Building in San Francisco and on Sundays at Jack London Square in Oakland. Check them out!

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