Isabel is … Headed to the Farmers’ Market

Exploring the Bay

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Walking down Center Street in Berkeley on Tuesday morning, minding my own business, I found myself sucked into a whirlpool of fresh vegetables and fruits, baked breads, jams, honeys and more. I had stumbled upon Berkeley’s Downtown Farmers’ Market. Music played in the background as people milled about, laughing and bargaining for produce. One of three markets thriving within Berkeley itself, the Downtown Market represents just one unique glimpse into the huge variety of markets in the Bay Area.

Driving through Sausalito, Monterey and Los Banos last week — the “salad bowl” of America — I got to thinking about our produce: who grows it and how they do it. All along the coast, endless fields of green lettuces and artichokes stretch for miles. Along the highway, fruit stands pop up every few miles, offering up the timeless tastes of summer: sweet, tart cherries and those fuzzy yellow peaches which drip juice all the way down my arm. This is a California summer.

An incredible two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts are grown in California — the freshest food the United States has to offer can be found a short stroll from your doorstep. Yet how often do I reach for the gas station’s stack of identical, bland apples?

Our power as consumers and producers is nowhere more powerful than at farmers’ markets, where local produce and sustainable practices are the norm. Here, farmers meet the individuals who enjoy their work and community is made.

All three of Berkeley’s markets are hosted and organized by The Ecology Centre, a nonprofit organization focused on improving the health and environmental impacts of urban residents. Each market in Berkeley has banned the use of GMOs and are voices of advocacy for strong national organic standards.

If you’ve never stumbled across a farmers’ market before, allow me to paint a picture of the Berkeley model: a world away from parking lots populated by farmers, Berkeley’s markets are cornucopias of color, with food to satisfy every appetite and every craving. There are fruits, yes, bursting with vibrant color, but also nuts, baked goods, jams and preserves, juices, olive oils, tofu, meats, cheeses, nursery plants, flowers and usually, somewhere, a group of musicians playing into the fragrant air.

My roommate last semester, though not religious, decided to take Saturday as a rest day, a day of no “work” whatsoever — a secular sabbath day. This day would be devoted to taking care of herself and others. More often than not, Saturday morning would come and she would be up early, produce bag in hand, on her way to Oakland, San Francisco or one of the Berkeley farmers’ markets. She made it her mission to explore all the area’s markets for what they had to offer.

When I came home in the evening, she’d be in the kitchen cooking a curry swimming with vegetables I’d never seen before. “Who did you meet today?” I would ask, ready for a story. We’d sit down for dinner together, enjoying her food and each other’s company. Food brings people together, especially in our city.

Riverdog Farm, located in Guinda, California, is the first farm to have stands at all of the farmers’ markets in Berkeley. An organic farm, it is committed to taking care of its employees, land and animals and achieves this through year-round crop rotation which not only ensures the soil can recover and support more growth, but also year-round employment for more than 50 families.

If you’re not hungry by this point in the article, another organic farm that can be found within Berkeley’s farmers’ markets might do it for you: Full Belly Farm. This farm offers year long internships, hired on a rolling basis throughout the year. The job offers a plethora of experiences, living and working on the farm: from taking care of animals to packing and washing produce. There are opportunities, too, to assist with in-farm educational programs which include overnight visits to the farm from local schools. In this way young students, interns and growers alike participate in building community around good, nutritious and sustainable food.

This week, I’m taking a walk up to the North Berkeley Farmers’ Market to check out the selection. This time around I’m prepared with grocery bags, a hungry belly and an open mind.

Explore Berkeley’s Farmers’ Markets for yourself: The Saturday Downtown Farmers’ Market is the closest to campus, located at 1931 Center St. It is open on Saturdays with live music from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Isabel writes the Thursday column on discovering Berkeley and the greater Bay Area. Contact her at [email protected].