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By Lorraine Sanders
Need a reminder that good can prevail over senseless acts of wrongdoing? You just might find that very sort of message hidden between the rutabaga and the parsnips at the next Noe Valley Farmers' Market, which celebrates its fifth anniversary in the neighborhood on Saturday, Dec. 6.
Ask anyone involved with the thriving year-round Saturday market held in the Noe Valley Ministry's 24th Street parking lot across from Martha & Bros. Coffee, and you'll learn, as many in the neighborhood are already well aware, that the market traces its roots not simply to its opening day in early December 2003, but back months earlier to the closure of the still-vacant Real Food grocery store, whose abrupt shuttering on the eve of Labor Day in 2003 and subsequent failure to reopen remains a prime topic among neighborhood residents.
"As a result of that terrible action, we've got this market now, and it's been very successful. And it so much more reflects the ultimate future of how we're going to need to feed ourselves going forward, as petroleum continues to dwindle and the need to do something about global warming becomes more and more apparent, so eating locally is going to be key to keeping this world habitable," says Rick Hildreth, a current member of the six-person volunteer board overseeing the market's operations.
In the five years since its debut, the market has retained its distinction as the only volunteer-supported farmers market in San Francisco. At the same time, it has grown to become much more than a convenient stopping point for organic vegetables, natural foods, and free-range meat from California growers and local farms.
On any given Saturday, rain or shine, some 1,500 people go to the market to shop for produce, yes, but also to catch up with friends and neighbors over coffee, let the kids burn off sugar highs induced by the ever-popular honey sticks, listen to live folk and bluegrass music, and enjoy neighborhood marvels like artist Mona Caron's Noe Valley-themed murals on either side of the parking lot.
"I'm surprised by what a town square it's become," says Leslie Crawford, a longtime 24th Street resident and a market co-founder. "At the beginning, Paula [Benton] and I had to go troll different farmers markets and beg farmers to try our market and be a part of this thing."
Remember Real Food
To many in the neighborhood, the market may seem like the perfect fit, a no-brainer boost to local residents' quality of life. But market founders stress the importance of understanding the market's history. Behind the Early Girl tomatoes and fresh-squeezed juices is a history born of actions by an out-of-state corporation that took away stable jobs and created an unnecessary blight on 24th Street, they say.
"It's very, very important to me to retain that historical meaning and keep that trajectory going. It's not just a place to get organic food. That's not it. It's based on social justice," says Elizabeth Street resident Peter Gabel, who helped co-found the market along with Crawford, Paula Benton, Steve Powell, and Kim Rohrbach.
The Farmers' Market owes its origins to the experiences of residents like Crawford, who one afternoon in early September 2003 struck out with her son Sam for one of their familiar afternoon walks through the neighborhood. As on many previous walks, the Real Food Company grocery store across from Bell Market was on their list of destinations.
"I show up, and it's shut and papered over. I just knew something was wrong. It didn't make sense. I remember coming home and saying to my husband, 'Something smells bad, something has happened,'" Crawford recalls.
Like many others, when she learned that the store's 30 employees had been fired without notice soon after workers had begun efforts to organize a union, she was angry.
"It seemed outrageous what they were doing," says Crawford. "I felt like, we should have some control over what goes on in our neighborhood."
Crawford wasn't the only neighborhood resident left shocked and dismayed by the store closure and the subsequent claims of employer malfeasance. Others like Gabel, who had just finished working on a community-based effort to save the neighborhood's Cover to Cover bookstore through the help of angel donors, former Real Food employees like Rohrbach, and concerned neighborhood residents like Benton and Powell were among nearly 200 people who attended a town hall meeting held at the Noe Valley Ministry a few weeks later. More meetings followed.
"We were coming together to say, 'We won't accept that in our neighborhood.' That was the spirit of those meetings," remembers Gabel.
For Gabel, the Farmers' Market was just one of the positive things to emerge from the meetings. A regular group of neighbors offered moral support to former Real Food employees called to testify during the subsequent unfair labor practices lawsuit against Real Food's parent company, Nutraceutical Corporation. In November 2005, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of the employees. Nutraceutical has since appealed the decision, but Gabel and others consider the win an important victory for the workers.
Volunteers Make It Work
This month, the Farmers' Market is celebrating an important milestone of its own: five years of putting organic and locally grown fruits and vegetables on Noe Valley tables.
"There is no other volunteer-run farmers market in the city. This is it. It's kind of a big deal. It's a special little thing," says Eureka Street resident Elizabeth Crane, who, as the market's sole paid employee, manages the market operations each and every Saturday.
Along with the acting board, the glue that holds the market together comes from a variety of sources. There's the Noe Valley Ministry, which hands over its parking lot for use during market hours. Martha & Bros. helps out by giving the market space to store its tents and equipment. And then there are the volunteers who show up to greet shoppers, count attendance, and (sorry, pooches!) keep the dogs out.
"I got involved because I think it the most wonderful thing to have in our neighborhood and our community. It's such a sense of community and good will and bounty, and for me personally, it's just what a wonderful way to spend a few hours of the week," says Church Street resident and regular volunteer Cynthia Hogan.
Not surprisingly, it's volunteers like Hogan that the market would like more of.
"As our numbers have dwindled, fewer of us do more of the work," says Crawford. "It gives more energy to the market to have more people helping."
Crawford has a long list of ideas for how the market could improve and begin to collaborate with other organizations, local schools, and community members. But for the time being, just maintaining the status quo is all the board, volunteers, and one employee can handle.
While there are always new projects and possibilities percolating in the wings, the Farmers' Market in its current manifestation is doing the most that it can with the resources it has. It's enough to have kept vendors like Twin Girls Farms, Happy Boy Farms, and Malik Ranch around since the beginning, fueling a healthy vendor waiting list.
As the Farmers' Market anniversary passes this month, market manager Crane hopes residents will notice just how much the weekly event has brought to the neighborhood.
Offers Crane: "What a great thing that you have a farmers market in your neighborhood. Cherish it, look after it, and don't take it for granted."
The Noe Valley Farmers' Market, which operates on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 3861 24th Street between Sanchez and Vicksburg streets, will celebrate its fifth anniversary on Saturday, Dec. 6. A small celebration will take place at the market that day. In addition to the regular market wares, board member Rick Hildreth will be selling his half-hour documentary Homegrown, about local farmers markets. For details about the market or to learn about volunteer opportunities, call 415-248-1332 or visit www.noevalleyfarmersmarket.com.