Today, farmers markets seem to be everywhere — there were almost 500 in the state last year, more than 80 of them in Los Angeles County. And although the farmers market movement is closely identified with California, it has exploded into a national phenomenon. There were more than 3,700 farmers markets in the United States in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than double only a decade before.
Who would have dreamed such a thing could come from what started out as four farmers in a church parking lot?
"This whole thing started with a small idea, but it put into motion something that turned out to be much bigger when others heard about it," says Ida Edwards. She and her husband, Leroy, were customers that first weekend; now they manage this market and another one at Adams Boulevard and Vermont Avenue — and they even do some farming themselves, raising aloe vera that they turn into soaps and lotions to sell at the markets.
To appreciate what the movement has accomplished, you have to look below the surface of what's going on at the Gardena market now. That stand with the bags of cute little citrus? That's Friend's Ranches from Ojai, and those Pixie tangerines are similar to the ones served at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. That stand over there with the great-looking strawberries and mixed vegetables? That's Tamai Farms from Oxnard and right across is Ha's Apple Farm from Tehachapi — their produce is served in some of California's finest restaurants.
Even more to the point: that funny-looking money that so many customers are using to pay? That's scrip for federal and state anti-hunger programs and accounts for as much as half of the market's sales.
From at one time not having access to fresh produce, low-income customers at the Gardena market — and many other small markets — now can get the same ingredients as are used by some of the best chefs in the country.
That is surely well beyond the dreams of even the most optimistic of the markets' founders. The first five farmers markets in Southern California were sponsored by the Interfaith Hunger Coalition, a project of the Southern California Ecumenical Council, with the simple idea of bringing fresh food to the poor.
"We were really addressing questions of food access, because at that time some of the supermarkets had fled the inner city," says Vance Corum, who organized the first half a dozen successful markets in Southern California. "At the same time, we were also very aware of the plight of farmers. That was the start of the tough times in the farm economy around the country. Things were tight."
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This article features a market located in Southern California, but there are thousands all over the United States:
More resources and an interactive map.