YOU CAN'T BUY COMMUNITY
BUT YOU CAN FIND IT AT BOSTON AREA FARMERS' MARKETS
By Hannah Freedberg
A crowded T car. Large office buildings. Bumper to bumper traffic on 128. The grocery store on weekend afternoons. Busy city streets. What do these places have in common? In each, we spend time in close proximity to total strangers. In each, we barely speak a word to them.
Ironic then, isn't it, that Boston is best known to out-of-towners as home to a bar "where everybody knows your name?" How many Bostonians regularly spend time in public spaces where the community not only gathers en masse, but interacts, learns each other's names and habits, even develops friendships?
In 2000, sociologist Robert D. Putnam identified and spread awareness of this phenomenon in his book Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster). For the last 3 decades of the 20th century, Putnam observes, attendance declined at most of the institutions that keep Americans connected to each other: institutions like bowling leagues, club meetings, religious services, even family dinners. In his book, Putnam warns of the dangers of such a decline in community. He identifies the numerous and specific benefits of extensive and healthy social networks, and asks Americans to re-invent their tattered civic traditions with an eye towards growing, rather than decreasing, the value of our social networks - what Putnam and others call "social capital."
What does this phenomenon have to do with food, and specifically the ways that Bostonians interact with food? Think about the last time you ate or shopped alone - was it last night as you commuted home from work, or at lunch today, in front of your computer? Then think about the last time you ate or shopped in a social setting - if you're like most of us, that memory is a bit more distant. And there you have your answer. Many of us eat and shop for our food alone much of the time.
There is, however, another way, right under our noses on city streets and in suburban parking lots from May until November. Last week I heard city-dwellers literally cheer at its return, as I hung signs for the Davis Square Farmers' Market on Somerville street signs. And though these Somervillians were cheering for the return of tasty produce, they were also cheering the return of a beloved seasonal ritual as much about relationships as about their shopping lists.
"Hey sweetie, how are you?" says Dartmouth, Mass. farmer Andy Pollock to a regular customer on opening day at Boston's City Hall Farmers' Market. The scene here on this breezy, sunny, late May Monday resembles nothing less than a family reunion, as market vendors and customers catch up after months apart. "Welcome back!" call frequent patrons to their favorite farmers. As the day wanes, Pollock shares tips on pumpkin planting with Breadsong Bakery proprietor Martha Sweet, whose young son is set on planting them in his family's garden in Auburndale (which he calls "his" farmers' market). Sweet shares, "Customers say to me all the time, 'How are your sons? How's your daughter?" because they've known me since I was pregnant with them, and I can do the same for them."
Greater Boston residents who shop at farmers' markets enter a different world when they walk into that parking lot piled high with fruits and veggies or are lured from the sidewalk's bustle to a display of freshly baked bread tucked under a striped awning. In this world, eye contact and friendly greetings are the norm. Vendors are genuinely glad to see you, and eager to tell you more about their product.
Sure, you might say - that's because they want to make a sale. Well, yes, they do. But vendors at farmers' markets are also involved in growing or making what they sell. This means it's about much more than a sale to them - it's about pride in work done well. They want to be sure you know that the eggplant you're taking home should be salted or boiled to take out the bitterness, because they are proud of the work that went into growing it and they want you to taste it at its best. And when you chat with them about their favorite recipe for marinara sauce, you see the evidence of that work in the dark circles under their eyes that prove they are keeping a farmer's schedule.
Odds are your cash will cross work-roughened hands - can you say that about your transactions with your local supermarket cashier? Your favorite baker will know that the amazing goat cheese and herb medley at the stall next door tastes best with their cornmeal rye bread - because they shared the combo with the goat cheese vendor at lunch. As City Hall market vendor Dave Gilson of The Herb Lyceum in Groton recently pointed out, no grocery store employee will ever know as much about the product they are selling as he will. And as he describes waking at 4am to work in his greenhouse and load his truck for market, you can't deny that he is right.
Most of the people who will pick up this inaugural issue of Edible Boston know that farmers' markets are one of the best sources for the freshest, most flavorful, food around. But they may not know that when theyyou buy that dozen ears of corn and that pint of raspberries, theyyou're getting an intangible benefit that is as good for youtheir soul as the food you'll they'll be consuming. You can find genuine community at your local farmers' market, of the sort many of us are lacking in our daily lives. Boston City Hall vendor Connie Collupy of Five Loaves Bakery in Spencer points out, "You build a rapport with … people, and they truly want to know how you are." Adds Dave Gilson, "When the same person is here every year, a really strong relationship is formed." Collupy continues, "I am as excited to see the customers as they are to see me."
The community-building potential of farmers' markets has positive outcomes on levels from the individual to the societal. And people -- from the office workers making a beeline for the Copley market at 5pm on a summer Tuesday to community development organizations to nationally recognized foundations - are taking notice.
When the Urban Land Institute recommended that the City of Somerville convert a brownfield into a farmers' market, the city, in partnership with a local non-profit, decided to go one better - they would establish a farmers' market in the heart of Union Square in order to accelerate the neighborhood's economic and social revitalization. In the words of Mimi Graney, Executive Director of Union Square Main Streets, the partners established the market "hoping to enliven the neighborhood, especially on summer weekends when people so often head out of town." Union Square Main Streets, along with the City of Somerville and The Federation of Massachusetts Farmers' Markets, was incredibly successful in accomplishing this goal in the first year of the market's operations in 2005. As Graney points out, the market is a place where Union Square residents make connections "with people they don't normally connect with."
"The Union Square Farmers Market gives residents and visitors access to the diverse array of fresh produce grown right here in Massachusetts," says Graney. "But the market is much more than this. It's become a weekly neighborhood gathering place, like a low-key brunch party every Saturday morning."
At farmers' markets, life is lived publicly, much as it was in small towns 100-plus years ago. Recipes and stories are swapped, children are raised, and relationships are formed. Much more than commerce happens when food producers interact directly with food consumers - this direct connection knits a stronger social fabric made up of individual relationships. When the corn and tomatoes on your August dinner plate have a story behind them, when you can trace them right back to the field where they grew, the food you eat can nourish not just your hunger for calories, but your hunger for community.
A friend who lived for a long time in rural southern Virginia often speaks fondly of the favorite activity there - which she calls "porchin' it." When I asked her what exactly "porchin' it" entailed, she explained that technically it meant sitting on the front porch - but that sitting on the porch was so much more than that - it was catching up with friends, neighbors, and newcomers, and generally keeping tabs on community life. In the same way, doing one's shopping at the farmers' market - my friend might call it "marketin'" - is much more that that. In an age and a culture where most city-dwellers rarely take (or have) time to "porch it," farmers' markets just might be the new front porch we all need. So get out and "porch it:" make a commitment to get the ingredients for your next meal at the farmers' market nearest you. You'll pick up much more than a bagful of fruits and vegetables, and we'll be very glad to meet you.
For dates, times, and location of a farmers' market near you, visit www.massfarmersmarkets.org, the website of the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers' Markets.