How Farmers’ Markets Support a Sustainable Food System

by Gabrielle Blavatsky

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

You may be familiar with GRACE’s popular  Seasonal Food Guide, a comprehensive online database that allows you to find which foods are in season at farmers’ markets in any state, any month of the year. To gear up for some big upcoming changes for the project, we’ve interviewed leaders in the farmers’ market movement to share their stories, incredible accomplishments and insight into the local food movement.

This week, we talked to Liz Carollo, the Publicity Manager for GrowNYC’s Greenmarket, NYC’s largest farmer’s market organization. Greenmarket turns 40 this year and it’s ready to celebrate its incredible growth: from a market with 12 farmers in a parking lot on 59th Street to over 230 farmers at 54 markets throughout the five boroughs. To mark its big anniversary, the organization is hosting a storytelling series called Greenmarket 40 for 40 where it collects 40 stories from within the Greenmarket community and posts a new one each week.

Liz plans and oversees at-market activities and events, partnering with various NYC health and wellness focused organizations to engage customers and enhance the marketplace each week. She also liaises with press, manages seasonal staff, develops Greenmarket’s marketing materials and coordinates Greenmarket’s social media efforts. All in the name of a more sustainable food system.

What first motivated you to work with farmers’ markets?

Thanksgiving 2005 I was visiting a friend who lived in Brooklyn and we went to the Union Square Greenmarket to shop for ingredients. It was love at first sight (and smell and taste). I think my exact words were “I have to spend the rest of my life here.” I was living in Florida at the time working for a non-profit, but swiftly made plans to head north and hounded the Council on the Environment of New York City (now GrowNYC) website until a job became available. It was the office manager position which I was definitely not qualified to do, but after my interview I received a call that a position in the publicity and programming department was available — much more my wheelhouse! I interviewed (twice) for that and was hired in December 2006. This will be my 10th season at Greenmarket and the love has only grown stronger.


Courtesy GrowNYC

What have been some of the most exciting developments for farmers’ markets and the local food movement over the past few years?

I think popularity and demand in general has been exciting for all market operators throughout the country. Customers are much more educated and aware, which is great for us because we operate producer-only markets with a robust Inspections Department so we can ensure traceability and transparency on the products sold at our markets.

In terms of exciting things happening specifically at Greenmarket, we are always developing new initiatives and programming to better support our producers, promote our local food system and educate our customers. Two particularly exciting initiatives are Greenmarket Co., our wholesale program that distributes fresh produce, grains, eggs and honey from medium-size growers in the region to bodegas, grocery stores and restaurants throughout the five boroughs. The other initiative is FARMroots, Greenmarket’s technical assistance program that has the dual function of recruiting and training beginning farmers, while also providing a range of technical assistance offerings to our existing producers.

By “voting with their fork,” Greenmarket customers take a stand against the industrial food system by keeping small farms thriving, helping to preserve healthy regional farmland and supporting surrounding rural economies.

How do farmers’ markets help support the development of a sustainable food system?

Farmers’ markets are integral to the continued development of a sustainable food system in this country. At Greenmarket alone, 204 farmers’ businesses rely on our markets for survival (80 percent of which report that they would be out of business if not for the direct marketing opportunity afforded by Greenmarket), and millions of New Yorkers depend on our markets weekly to shop for food, talk to their farmers, meet their neighbors and discover new ingredients. Our markets also exist as places where farmers can test new products or varieties, often at the request of a chef or customer missing an ingredient from their home country. Because of this, our markets remain the most diverse and dynamic places to buy food in New York City.

By “voting with their fork,” Greenmarket customers take a stand against the industrial food system by keeping small farms thriving, helping to preserve healthy regional farmland and supporting surrounding rural economies.

In the last ten years there has been an enormous rise in demand for local products — and we, of course, celebrate any organization or company’s work that improves the viability of small farms. We simply want to ensure that new suppliers also place the grower benefits equally to their own, as it is in all of our collective interests to see the growth of regional agriculture, and we will support any effort that does so responsibly.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing farmers’ markets today?

The #1 and #2 threats to quality farming are agriculture subsidies and corporate advertising dollars; that is what we are competing against. In America alone, we lose more than one acre of farm and ranch land every minute. Development, severe weather events and bad policy decisions can sometimes make it seem as though small family farms are not getting the support they need and deserve. Despite these incredible hurdles, we remain optimistic. Conversations are taking place that weren’t just a few years ago and universities are providing programs focused on sustainable agriculture. The growth of farmers’ markets, CSAs and newly emerging food hubs give small farms the opportunity to sell directly to their customer base and stay viable, making the outlook good for us and them. Through FARMroots we help to train beginning farmers and connect them with land and other opportunities to ensure that the agricultural community in our region stays strong.


Courtesy GrowNYC

How can farmers’ markets expand their reach to all members of the community?

Farmers’ markets begin with the communities in which they are located. It is a part of our mission to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to the most healthful, most delicious locally grown foods and we partner with community groups and local businesses to establish and operate markets with that in mind. Community participation is crucial in making our markets successful not just for the farmers but for the surrounding neighborhood.

Local community groups regularly contribute to our at-market programming through special cooking demonstrations, nutrition education, cultural events and celebrations and other special events designed to bring neighbors together and interacting with one another. This programming allows for community ownership of the market and gives each one its own distinct personality. …Additionally, through GrowNYC’s Healthy Exchange Project, we make regionally-grown food more accessible to all New Yorkers, including the estimated 1.8 million New Yorkers who receive nutritional assistance, by promoting and accepting SNAP/EBT, Health Bucks, the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) Checks, WIC Vegetable and Fruit Checks and Greenmarket Bucks.

…EBT [or food stamps] has become a critical supplement to farmers who depend on these markets for survival, as some farmers reported that EBT sales comprise 25  to 50 percent of their total income. Hungry New Yorkers also receive a 40 percent increase in value for their EBT dollars spent at local Greenmarkets with a $2 Health Buck coupon for every $5 they spend to purchase fresh produce. Many families rely on those crucial extra dollars to stretch their food budgets and insure their families are able to eat a healthy diet.

Where do you see the greatest opportunities for your organization to continue to grow?

The perfect example of the power of our markets for innovation and growth is the work of the Greenmarket Regional Grains Project. For years we heard from our farmers and consumers that our baked goods did not showcase regional agriculture and live up to the expectations of Greenmarket. In 2008, led by my colleague June Russell, we spent two years working with our Farmer Consumer Advisory Committee and baker community to enact a rule that required all bakers use 15 percent local flour, and instituted a point system for eligibility, that also required local eggs, sweeteners, fats, flavoring, as well as incentivized purchasing fair trade ingredients, when necessary.

Today our bakers average using over 40 percent local grains and flours in their products; but the project has grown into something much larger. Greenmarket staff now operates a bi-weekly grain stand, where we aggregate products from 19 producers, all too small for an individual stand to be economically viable … In doing all of this we are encouraging more farmers to plant these varieties on their farms, which leads to healthier soils and increased revenue. We are not just some marketplace that moves food; we are a mission driven non-profit that creates viable spaces to support farms and build community.

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

This answer is three-fold.

Number 1 is the markets themselves. Standing in the middle of our Poe Park market on a summer day with the shoppers so thick you can barely reach the cucumbers and tomatoes, grabbing a tamale on my way into the Jackson Heights market or attempting to crowd surf on a Union Square Saturday just to get to the other end of the market — spending time in our markets provides a constant stream of inspiration to work harder and be more innovative to ensure farmers continue to have opportunities to sell, and New Yorkers have access to purchase, the freshest locally grown food this region has to offer.

Number 2 is my colleagues at Greenmarket who work countless hours loading and setting up equipment, answering 4am calls from farmers, building a database that can handle the coordination of 200 farmers, over 15,000 individual products and 2,500 individual market days every year, and our at-market staff who expertly handle anything and everything that can happen while running markets on the streets of New York City.

Number 3, the most important of them all: our farmers, who work 20 hour days, burn the miles getting to market to be set up by 8am, brave every kind of weather while selling outside and, without which, I would be seriously hungry.

Stay up to date with the latest from Liz and Greenmarket!

Facebook: GrowNYC

Twitter: @GrowNYC

Instagram: grownyc

Note: This interview has been edited for brevity.

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