A Fresh Approach

in Features

Summer days afford Fred Monahan little time to consider the lilies of the field. As a dedicated vendor at four New Haven farmers’ markets, he is too busy with the land’s other, edible bounty: the sweetness of corn, the firmness of squash, the odor of garlic, the length of cucumbers, and the lush, juicy ripeness of peaches. Today, he is particularly concerned with peppers. And, on account of it being Thursday, he is out of his element.

A broad-faced, affable man, Monahan is dressed in the same navy hoodie and tan overalls that he wore to market the day before. He and his wife, Stacia, own Stone Gardens Farm, 33 acres of sweet corn and vegetables in nearby Shelton, CT. Today, however, he finds himself in a more urban environment. Each Thursday in Fair Haven, as Grand Avenue prepares to plunge across the Quinnipiac River and scale the hills of Fair Haven Heights, a cluster of white tents and a rainbow of picnic blankets assemble across the wide, grassy expanse of riverbank. Here, a three-year-old not-for-profit named CitySeed hosts the most unusual of its four weekly farmers’ markets. And here, set against the bucolic wooded knolls and white steeples of the opposite bank and surrounded by a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, Monahan is nonplussed.

Unable to speak Spanish, he says that the language barrier at the Fair Haven market “can make you want to throw your hands up and walk away.” He has mastered the numbers-through twenty, at least-and the names of certain vegetables, but is at a loss in the face of rarer, more complex questions. Confronted with an elderly woman who wants to know cuantas semanas tienen sus habaneros, he can only shake his head and observe, dryly, that “these markets are very good for stress management.” The age of a habanero pepper determines how hot it tastes; unable to get an answer, the woman is reluctant to purchase the small, vibrantly orange vegetable. Monahan, though here to sell peppers, is not concerned. Business at the CitySeed markets is regularly brisk; another customer will likely buy him out of peppers: habanero, bell, and jalapeno. If not, he describes how he would go about eating them-slicing off the tops, stuffing them with prosciutto and provolone from a neighboring stall, and marinating them in olive oil. “That’s the only vegetables we get to eat, the ones people don’t buy,” he says. “I haven’t eaten a good vegetable all summer.” A passing customer, carting off a particularly nice set of bell peppers, describes him as “a prince among men.”

CitySeed, like any civic-minded not-for-profit, is full of such princes. Its three full-time employees-Jennifer McTiernan, Benjamin Gardner, and Nicole Berube-wander each market, their faces exuding cheer from behind woven baskets, jars of honey, stacks of recipes, and loaves of bread. It is their work, and particularly the dedication of Berube, the program director responsible for the Thursday market, that brings Monahan and his pregnant wife to Fair Haven week after week. They know that underneath this idyll, under the mounds of red tomatoes and clusters of lettuce, is a struggle for the soul of America’s food system and the health of its inner cities. Here in Fair Haven, CitySeed is on the front lines of the battle for farmers’ markets-a battle that pits small farmers, charitable foundations, and the inner-city poor against the diverse specters of agribusiness and urban decay. Viewed for thirty years as an icon of the liberal bourgeoisie and a luxury for the rich, farmers’ markets are being transformed from a symbol of yuppie excess to a concrete medium of renewal and public welfare. CitySeed’s three other markets are self-supporting-the farmers make enough money each week to cover their costs and time. But here, against the edge of a major thoroughfare in a depressed New England manufacturing town, a novel idea is in the midst of its third and strongest season. Government spending, charitable donations, and a tiny not-for-profit are giving small farmers and low-income city dwellers, the widespread underdogs of our rural and urban landscapes, the chance to help each other out-and to plant, in the midst of the city, the seed of a community.

Three years before this idea took root, Jennifer McTiernan stood at CitySeed’s inaugural market in Wooster Square, the city’s Italian district. Then, as now, she was an upbeat twenty-something with chestnut hair falling straight past her shoulders. A graduate of the Yale Class of 1999 with a B.A. in American Studies, she had returned to New Haven with a baby daughter, a year of experience in an organic restaurant, and the determination to bring New Haven residents and farmers together. On the 17th of July, 2004, she was CitySeed’s founder and sole employee; today she is its executive director. As the New Haven Register’s “Person of the Year 2006,” her title, increasing visibility, and expanding staff are testament to the organization’s success.

At the market on that first Saturday, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, Jr., a camera team from News Channel 8, and a bevy of excited passersby watched as CitySeed board members costumed as plush tomatoes, purple eggplants, and ears of corn danced in front of vendors from seven organic and pesticide-free farms. By the end of its first day, the market featured many vendors who had sold out of produce so early that they phoned spouses or farm hands for emergency deliveries. By the end of its first season, the market boasted regular attendance from a dedicated customer base and more than 15 farmers. New Haven County, home to more members of the Connecticut Farm Bureau than any other in the state, finally had the market it deserved.

Over the course of 2005, the Wooster Square market would be joined by not only the Fair Haven market, but also by start-ups in a corner of Edgewood Park and in front of City Hall. Each has its own flavor, its distinct composition of vendors and customers. The Wooster Square market is a destination; neighborhood Italians and graduate students are joined by far-flung shoppers from Hamden and Meriden, car keys dangling at their hips. Edgewood Park is a more local affair, while the downtown market lures a more suit-and-tie clientele. The vendors know their customer base and target the appropriate market; there is more food to grab and go on Church Street, more high-end products at Wooster Square. While vendors at the first CitySeed markets hailed from within 25 miles of the city, many now spend over an hour with their foot on the gas pedal, cross-pollinating the Elm City with food from farms across the Nutmeg State. In Wooster Square, Two Guys From Woodbridge sells hydroponic microgreens from the oldest farm in Hamden. It has been joined by Beltane Farm, which owns forty goats in Lebanon and drives more than sixty miles to sell its wool, milk, and fresh chevre in New Haven.

But neither of these farmers comes to Fair Haven, where customers expect more everyday offerings. “We sell things people regularly cook with all the time,” Berube explains. “They expect corn. They expect fruit. Swiss chard probably isn’t your biggest seller here.”

These customer demands make the Fair Haven market a bit less attractive to farmers. But regardless of consumer preference, capable vendors at every market can recoup ninety cents per dollar spent on their goods-a sight better share than what they make selling to supermarkets, where a chain of middlemen and marketers leave farmers to gross only twenty cents off every dollar.

The population of Fair Haven has been majority-immigrant for most of the previous century, and many of the Puerto Ricans and Africans who dominate its cultural landscape are ill-accustomed to farmers’ markets, unused to New England produce, merely proficient at English, and without the money to spend on luxury foods. Their purchases do not always allow vendors the money to justify transportation costs and time spent away from the fields.

To draw farmers to Fair Haven, CitySeed has worked to define and operate a “community-supported market.” To bring together two groups very much in need of each other, the organization coordinates large produce orders from local businesses to cover farmers’ operating costs. Each week, CitySeed fills boxes with a melange of produce from three participating farms- “a good number for us,” Berube says, “a good number for logistics”-which it then distributes to customers who have arranged in advance for a long-term share. It’s a sort of season ticket.

In 2006, employees at three organizations were targeted for the program: Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, the law firm Wiggin & Dana, and the Fair Haven Community Health Center. Together, purchases of ten- and twenty-dollar shares grossed $7,111 for CitySeed and the farmers at its Fair Haven market. This summer, Berube drives the newly-purchased “CitySeed-mobile”-a gray-green Honda Element with peas stenciled on the side-to two more participating offices: a group at the Yale Forestry School and Junta for Progressive Action, a community Latino organization and CitySeed’s partner at the Fair Haven market that offers micro-loans to neighborhood residents, covering the start-up costs of a booth to sell jewelry or crafts. She is proud of her new infrastructure and her snazzy delivery method, and, thanks to a higher handling fee and increased interest in the new 15-dollar shares, expects the community-supported market to gross even more this year. But, Berube says, “I haven’t done any data gathering yet.” She laughs ruefully, a little tired. “That’s for the end of the season.”

By the time she retires to the office and begins crunching numbers, Berube will have hosted a whole series of events at the Fair Haven market. While the community-supported market system is an innovative structure responsible for much of the location’s success, it is not at the heart of her effort. Rather, those purchases by the relatively well-off are designed to ensure that farmers continue coming to Fair Haven and continue selling to those who can’t afford to have a weekly share delivered to their office. Their money, along with a well-tailored government program and the support of other foundations and not-for-profits, ensures that the Fair Haven market is a worthwhile venture for more than the English-speaking vendors who frequent it-the community’s consumers, too, are busy exploring its potential.

One of the initiatives that keeps these customers coming back is advertised prominently at the booth on a flapping, plastic banner, whose blue lettering picks out the following message:

“We gladly accept food stamps/EBT. Get your tokens here.

“Con mucho gusto aceptamos cupones para alimentos/EBT. Obtenga sus fiches (tokens) aqui.
(Connecticut Department of Social Services. Caring for Connecticut.)”

This message has been posted at each of the week’s markets, but nowhere is it more important to business than in Fair Haven. The steady stream of professionals that characterized the other markets has been replaced by a crowd of complete families, or women with young children in tow.

The Fair Haven Community Health Center, one of the three organizations participating in the community-supported market, contributes to this market in other ways: its patrons are often marketgoers. The Haven Free Clinic, a collaborative project of Yale undergraduates, medical students, and the Center, has run a booth at the Thursday markets and taken children on tours. Providing information rather than selling goods, Neil Desai, Med. ’09, has tempted kids with crayons or an organic recipe of the week-“crayons actually work better than food”-and then educated them about balanced diets and the importance of exercise. Eager to help out, he watched the CitySeed booth while Berube delivered boxes to members of the CSM. Fresh vegetables, sustainable or not, are important to a healthy diet, and the market provides a rare opportunity for lower-income households to access them. “It’s not just buying food here, it’s being out here,” he says, describing the virtues of CitySeed’s endeavor. “Usually, you think of farmers’ markets as, frankly, a yuppie thing.”

That the Fair Haven market breaks this mold is credit not only to CitySeed and its donors but also to a pair of federal programs: Food Stamps and WIC Checks. The former, distributed under an entitlement program established by the federal government in 1971, are no longer issued on paper but embedded in a swipe card as an Electronic Benefit Transfer. 25.7 million Americans receive a maximum of $155 dollars per person in food stamps each month. The same wireless technology that permits wealthy marketgoers to use their credit cards allows those closer to the poverty line to pay for fresh, nutritious food. The CitySeed booth, equipped with the correct device, allows customers to spend their food stamps in exchange for wooden disks, each the approximate size and exact worth of a silver dollar. Those tokens are accepted at all other stalls. CitySeed markets were the first in the state to accept such wireless payment and to open its stalls to those on welfare.

More prevalent than food stamps are WIC checks-oversized pieces of paper issued by the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. A grant administered by local officials, WIC spends nearly five billion dollars each year providing for over eight million low-income, nutritionally at-risk pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and children through the age of five. Forty-five percent of all American children benefit from the program.

Since 1992, a subset of the grant has been earmarked for the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, which provides over 2.5 million people with packets of between five and ten three-dollar checks that can be redeemed only for locally-grown produce. Operative under the USDA in 38 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and four Indian tribal organizations, WIC FMNP allocated $409,879 to more than fifty thousand Connecticut residents in 2005.

The program has been criticized for limiting the choices of those below the poverty line and forcing them to purchase uncooked food that busy schedules may not allow them to prepare. In President Bush’s budget proposal for 2005, spending for the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program was cut by 26%, to twenty million dollars-an action less severe than the administration’s earlier statements that the program should be eliminated entirely.

But WIC checks have survived their critics and federal budget cuts thanks to overwhelming support from the public health and agricultural communities. Its advocates condemn the President and his fellow antagonists for trumpeting the cause of agribusiness-money authorized as WIC checks flows predominantly into the pockets of small farmers-and respond to concerns about underprivileged consumers’ limited freedom of choice by pointing to the comparatively small amount of money changing hands-just slightly more than one-half of one percent of total WIC spending, to a maximum of thirty dollars per person each season. In all, the produce and meat farmers benefiting from the WIC FMNP programs receive less than one-tenth of one percent of the billions of subsidy dollars the federal government gives to cereal, fiber, and other commodity producers.

Berube says it wouldn’t be a market without Monahan; he says it wouldn’t be a market without WIC. He estimates that “a good percentage, maybe seventy” of his income at the Thursday markets is in WIC checks. His wife agrees, adding that this is nearly three times the percentage of other area markets. The Monahans make sure that all of their goods are neatly priced in multiples of three to ease the transaction-no matter the language. What’s more, by selling produce directly to consumers rather than to wholesalers, Monahan and his fellow vendors are able to offer prices competitive with local grocery stores and still make a livable profit. Consumers also benefit, able to eat food grown locally and picked recently. If there is an element of paternalism in a system that requires those on federal assistance to eat nutritious food, most recipients are willing to accept it along with the checks.

In a world increasingly conscious of the benefits of ecologically-minded food production, CitySeed’s broad perspective accounts for both the environment and nutrition. Though all the produce sold at Thursday’s markets is Connecticut grown, it is not entirely organic; this is fine with Neil and the Haven Free Clinic. “It’s vegetables,” he says. “So it doesn’t really matter to me if it’s sustainable or not.” More paramount is “food security,” an increasingly widespread term that describes a community’s access to an affordable, balanced diet. A report by the Connecticut Food Policy Council in 2005 ranked New Haven 163rd out of 169 cities in the state and criticized its poor bus routes for making grocers hard to reach for the working poor. CitySeed is fixing the transportation gap another way, bringing food from the farmers who need to sell it to consumers who need to buy it. Berube says that this season, they’re succeeding. “It’s a better market this year. If we manage to keep it like this, I’ll be happy. And the community will be happy.”

The establishment of that community-the transmutation of isolated vendors and shoppers into friends, of a forgotten park into a neighborhood destination-has been one of CitySeed’s ambitions from the outset. The organization believes farmers’ markets can replicate this success through a commitment to “placemaking,” a neologism that serves as shorthand for the intricate processes contributing to the creation of successful public spaces.

Many vendors appreciate this goal. One is Stan, a fairly regular vendor at the Wednesday and Sunday markets who may one day sell in Fair Haven as well. He sports gray hair, a red flannel shirt, and a friendly disposition. To each person who passes, his voice twangs out, calling, “Howdy! Wouldja like a sample? Homemade.” It drawls the first syllable of the last word out nice and slow, almost eliding the first m: “hoemade.” Stan is chipper and supportive of CitySeed’s work, mindful not only of its benefits for farmers but for city residents. “It’s the best thing for a neighborhood,” he proclaims. “There’s a great civilizing influence the markets have.” Each week, on his table next to a cooler and a bowl of white corn chips, a sign advertises Stan’s Salsa in any of several varieties-mild, hot, pineapple, and fiery. Another sign has been taped on white printer paper to the rear windshield of his aqua Dodge Shadow, offering a favorite quote of his mother’s, attributed to George Washington. The sign reads, in the large, black Times New Roman of a standard word processor, “Agriculture is the most useful, the most healthful, the most noble profession.” His tires read, in the raised rubber of the brand name, “Revelation.”

CitySeed’s Fair Haven market is a powerful testament to the role of public spaces in community-building. “All of our farmers,” Berube says, “are willing to talk to people.” The market encourages shoppers to linger, listening to the musical acts CitySeed hires and picnicking from the burrito cart a neighborhood restaurant provides. “One time,” Berube says, “someone brought their saxophone and started playing Peanuts tunes.” Stacia Monahan loved it. “It’s one of my favorite markets to come to,” she says. “It’s festive.” There each week, you might say of Stone Gardens what the farm boasts of its “Intimidator” cucumber variety: “They have been stalwarts. They just march right through.” A CitySeed employee, arriving at the Fair Haven market with his tan mastiff, wants to know what Stacia’s husband will do over the winter, while his fields are lying fallow. “Drink!” he replies. “Inside or outside?” the employee wants to know. “Both!” And then, in the spring, Fred Monahan and his family will be back at Fair Haven-for there, from July through October, Thursdays on the waterfront bustle with shoppers, onlookers, and small children, all of whom leave laden with a new sense of community spirit and a sack of fresh, sustainable produce.

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