Stepping foot in a grocery store these days means having more choices than just paper or plastic. In an age of gluten-free, dairy-free, fat-free, and non-GMO options, simply buying a meal can seem overwhelming. But before shelves were stocked with stickers and labels, there was a simple thing called your neighborhood farmers’ market, where you could count on finding fresh, local goods grown with heart and nurtured with soul. Luckily, these markets still exist in virtually every neighborhood across Southern California. And if you’re looking for the one near you, we’ve got you covered!
Tucked into San Diego’s vibrant Italian district, just minutes from bustling Downtown, is the Little Italy Mercato. Founded in 2008 by Catt White, this market started on a modest block and a half with 40 farmers and vendors. Now, the market boasts 200 tents on five large blocks. “I saw a need,” said White. “I lived in Little Italy and could do anything I wanted but shop for fresh groceries.” White had spent a lot of time around small markets in Europe and as the publisher of a small trade magazine for independent restaurants, was immersed in food politics. “Our goal is to make it so people can do their weekly grocery shopping and not have to go anywhere else,” she said.
And she’s accomplished that. Every Saturday, from 8:00am-2:00pm, the Mercato averages 15,000-18,000 visitors. San Diego locals, chefs and restaurant owners, along with tourists docking from one of the nearby cruise ships, can find everything from summer squash to sea urchins, which are caught by local divers each week.
White is proud to host multi-generational farmers as well as those new to the trade, both of whom help maintain the integrity of the market. “It completely changes the economy of farming,” she explained. “Farmers can keep the entire margin by selling directly to the consumer. Despite high land prices, we keep getting new farmers.”
“We wouldn’t be able to sustain our business without a local market,” commented one Mercato tenant. “It helps us thrive.”
Along with commerce, the market brings new tastes and tunes to the city, with live music at three different locations. “We just try to bring farmers to the city and people to the table,” White said. “It makes Little Italy even more wonderful.”
Up the coast in Orange County, people flock to Anaheim for two things – the Angels and the Downtown Certified Farmers’ Market & Craft Fair. In addition to certified produce and homegrown music, the market offers locally made foods and crafts, mentioned Devon Reeves, the Community Relations Manager for the Downtown Anaheim Association.
“What makes us unique is that we also accept EBT and Farmers’ Market Nutrition Vouchers” Reeves added. Not only does the Association want to support farmers, but it also encourages all citizens to buy local and eat fresh. “It’s important to connect to the community,” Reeves said. “The produce offered at certified farmers’ markets tends to be more flavorful, as it is picked at peak ripeness.”
Roughly 30-50 vendors set up each week, depending on the season. The Downtown Market was launched in 1995 and is located directly in the heart of Downtown at the Center Street Plaza. Founded on the A,B,C,D’s – Agriculture, Business, Crafts and Dining – the market is open every Thursday from 11:00am-4:00pm.
Foodies and freshness fiends alike delight in the colors, tastes and sights at the Downtown Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, which is open every Wednesday and Saturday year-round, rain or shine. It’s difficult to believe that that the ever-busy Third Street Promenade was, at one point, in need of some serious foot traffic. But that is the very reason then-Mayor Ruth Yannatta Goldway founded the market, which dates back to 1981, right after farmers’ markets were authorized by the Direct Marketing Act. “It was the right thing at the right time,” said Laura Avery, the Farmers Market Supervisor for the City of Santa Monica. “The people of Santa Monica loved it and we doubled in size the first year.”
Vendors set up right alongside the bustling 3rd Street Promenade and feature everything from exotic nuts to fresh flowers and occasionally, sushi from LA hotspot Sugarfish by Sushi Nozawa. “What makes us unique is our variety,” Avery elaborated. “We introduce a lot of new products, like papayas, finger limes and mangos brought in from the Salton Sea.”
But in addition to exciting visitors with exotic goods, the market serves a very important role within the community. “Everybody wants to buy local and sustainable, eat well and help California farmers,” Avery explained. “In this fourth year of the drought, we’re just trying to help farmers continue to farm,” she said.
“We owe our survival to the farmers’ market,” said Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms. Weiser’s family has been part of the market since it’s founding and has enjoyed watching the industry prosper under it’s influence. “Instead of old system where that was a disconnect, the connection from farmer to customer is filled with a lot of love and trust,” Weiser said. “It’s fulfilling for everybody involved.”
Between munching on samples of the freshest fruits and vegetables, guests can take a break to sip on local coffee and enjoy ocean views. The market is also piloting an educational program for children that will include storytelling, arts-and-crafts, cooking demonstrations and face painting. Programs like this are making their way into more and more farmers’ markets, transforming the experience from finding well-priced, high quality produce into a day’s affair for the whole family.