Business / Food

At farmers market, the slogan is ‘Give peas a chance’

By Susan Hill
shill01@ccny.cuny.edu

Charles White grins from behind a folding table laden with hearty stacks of cauliflower, squash, and green peppers. He is as wiry as a string bean, in perfect harmony with the bounty he is selling at the Hunts Point Farmer’s Market.

White, commonly known as “Mississippi,” is a neighborhood resident and a former manager of the market, which for the last four years has been selling vegetables, fruits, herbs, plants, and flowers every Wednesday and Saturday on Crames Square at Southern Boulevard. and 163rd Street.

On this bright October morning, he was manning the Gajeski Produce stand. Located in Riverhead on the East End of Long Island, Gajeski is one of the three to five growers who come to the market from June to November.

“How much are they selling it for?” Mississippi wanted to know. “They” is Fine Fare, the supermarket across the street from the farmers’ stands, close enough to compete for the shoppers’ food dollar.

He was pleased to hear that the green peppers and eggplant were selling at his stand and the supermarket for the same price: a dollar a pound. But he let out a whoop of satisfaction to hear that Gajeski was selling butternut squash for a full 39 cents a pound less than the commercial competitor.

“I told you!” he exclaims, in triumph.

It is a victory for the farmers and for Community Markets, the Westchester-based firm that manages the Hunts Point Farmers Market and others throughout the metropolitan area. They are on a mission to encourage people to eat locally grown foods, which are widely regarded as tastier and more nutritious, and to bring these options to lower-income neighborhoods that are not always provided with fresh produce. With competitive prices, the market is also dispelling the idea that farm stands are expensive.

Over the months, watermelons, carrots, various types of peppers, cabbages, tomatoes, and cantaloupes are just some examples of the variety of food brought to the market from growers no farther away from the Bronx than upstate Carlisle, 145 miles up the New York State Thruway.

Joann Froehlich, from her family’s Ed Froehlich Farm based in Montgomery, New York, relates her customers’ awe over her summer cucumbers. “They couldn’t get over it,” she explains, “that they aren’t shiny because they’re not waxed.” She added how much everyone loved the sweet corn this season, too.

The Froehlich stand tends to sell its crops in small bundles marked at two dollars, instead of weighing and charging by the pound. This makes it easier for the customers, the majority of whom participate in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP). Recipients, mothers at the poverty level, are given 12 coupons worth $2 a piece to spend at a farmers’ market during the season. The vendors then go to a participating bank and turn in the coupons for cash.

Lucy Figueroa, a WIC participant, was out at the market early on a Saturday in mid-October in order to get the best crop choices. She says the market and the WIC program are “good for the community and people that have a low-income.” Coupon book in hand, Figueroa said she and her child like to eat all the vegetables offered on the tables, gratefully adding that her baby is “not picky.”

It was wise of Figueroa to start using her coupons before the season ended. Miriam Haas, director of Community Markets, observes that many WIC participants wait until the last day of the market, around mid-November, to spend them. By then, Haas warns, the harvest is almost over and less is available. Showing frustration, she related stories of people “scrambling” for the last pickings of the year, when plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables had been available for months.

Market manager Kurt Rummel believes that farmers’ markets help people to “care about cooking at home” and that it is “an issue of education” to realize the benefits of eating fresh foods.

Ludie Minaya, of Family Cook Productions, is taking the concept of education one step further. Pulling a small cart stocked with everything she needs to produce a makeshift kitchen on the street, Minaya is determined to display to market shoppers easy and novel ways to cook up the produce for purchase from the farmers. She is driven to “bust the myth” that low-income families don’t have the time or ability to eat healthily.

Minaya describes the crowds that gather around her burner. “Because I’m a Latina,” she says, “they make a connection.” People are surprised to see her preparing foods that are not traditionally associated with their culture, she continues, but they embrace the innovations because of their shared ethnicity.

“There’s Daisy!” onlookers say when they see her, comparing her to television chef Daisy Martinez from PBS.

Brian Gajeski of Gajeski Produce exuberantly observes that his Hispanic clientele never complains, unlike shoppers his other markets serve. In upscale Tarrytown, for example, affluent market-goers haggle over prices.

Gajeski does mention, however, that some of the Hunts Point customers come seeking exotic produce that can only grow in warmer climates. They ask for avocados and bananas, because they “don’t know what is local,” he says.

Community Markets performs inspections to ensure that the farms are producing what they are selling, although Froelich says she and Gajeski often pick up apples and plums from neighboring farms to sell at the market because “one farmer can’t grow everything.”

Still, Hunts Point’s vast produce distribution center is only a stone fruit’s throw away from Crames Square, making it an easy stop for dishonest farmers. Gajeski, with a lightly sardonic expression, related a story of a farmer at another market trying to pass off produce bought from wholesalers at Hunts Point as homegrown. He failed to remove the stickers that read “grown in Holland.”

That sort of fraud subverts the main purpose of the market, to give the neighborhood access to fresh, locally grown food.

“It’s a good idea for the community,” said resident Isabelle Gutierrez about the farmers’ stands, on her first shopping trip with her three children in tow. She planned to pay with WIC coupons she received when she applied for Medicaid.

Gutierrez was pleased to have the selection of “healthy food” and said she was going home to “make a real good soup.”

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