The Oxford English Dictionary defines community as “a body of people or things viewed collectively.” The word originates from the ancient Anglo-Norman and Middle French communité meaning “joint ownership.”
I believe that Americans are forming community at farmers markets faster than they are anywhere else. I believe that a greater sense of American community is desperately needed in our time.
I have been working in and around farmers markets for more than a decade. They are, in many respects, burdensome and exhausting. Early morning risings, complicated packing and transportation, risk-laden commercial transactional logistics, and considerable physical exertion, all wrapped up in a rather primordial and certainly unpredictable reliance on Mother Nature to be kind, a posture she refuses to accept.
But then the bell rings ? and then the weekly building of the market culminates in the creation of community. And with the first customer greeting, with the first smiled question, with the first purchase, the weariness ends and the burden lifts. In an act as ancient as any in our time, food is provided, labor is recognized, quality is rewarded, and connection is made.
In their repeated weekly cycle, these market-built communities expand organically like the rings of a tree or the tendrils of a vine. On your next visit to market, take note. Our market community is strong and inclusive: food from five states bringing together consumers of all colors, ages, races, ethnicities, and economic and social backgrounds. Rural meets urban. Rich meets poor. Young meets old. Conservative meets liberal. These distinctions fall away as we collectively relish the joy of beautiful lettuce greens, perfectly ripened stone fruits, humanely raised meats, actively ripening cheeses, breads from local grain, and all manner of products made by the hands that sell them.
Building these market communities is most significant. They are among the few places where we still permit ourselves this falling away of divisive and artificial social layering. They are among the few places where we slow down enough to greet a stranger, make a new friend, see and wonder about those others ? those not like us. In a sense, farmers markets are where we can see true democracy at work. In these market communities, we come face to face with those who feed us, and for a few hours we share with them an experience of the primordial and unpredictable natural environment and climate that we collectively rely on. Too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, too windy, too humid? Yet, the market happens.
And our market community is growing. Market gleaning partners like DC Central Kitchen and Iona Senior Services take leftover, unused food to those with the greatest need, those who may never be able to physically attend the market. Matching Dollars and Produce Plus attract consumers to the market, these programs work to break down the economic barriers that prevent consumers from joining the community and that prevent access to the food we celebrate.
Ann Harvey Yonkers repeatedly calls my attention to a phrase in the founding documents of FRESHFARM Markets. The phrase, ?to share the burden of government,? partly justifies our status as a non-profit organization. In this phrase beats the heart of the market community because it illustrates how markets knit up the fabric of community and make communities prosper and connect people. She also calls markets ?the new town squares? because markets welcome everyone and are places where people feel at home. The community works to exclude none, the community that week after week grows toward a fuller awareness of our joint responsibility to care for the people and places that provide our food.
Next time you are at market, pause a moment and look around. Look at peoples? faces and listen to the murmur of conversations all around you. This is not an ordinary public space. Somehow the combination of the beautiful food, the authenticity of the exchange between farmer and customer and the simplicity of the setting is transformative. Everyone feels at home. The market feels like their place and they are engaged, receptive and happy there. There is no question there is some magic going on.
See you at market!
Written by Mike Koch, Executive Director, FRESHFARM Markets