In May 1987, the Ecology Center hosted the first Berkeley Farmers’ Market, creating a viable alternative to the industrial food model. After a series of Berkeley markets failed to take hold in the early ’80s, the farmers’ market project was resuscitated by late Berkeley resident Biz Marcus, who collected food donations to give to the homeless. The City of Berkeley granted Marcus a location on Derby Street—where the Tuesday market continues to this day—and she approached the Ecology Center to sponsor the revival. Success!
In 1990, the Ecology Center opened a second market on Saturdays on Center Street. In 2004, the first 100 percent organic market (the other two are about 80 percent organic) opened up on Thursdays at Shattuck and Rose, with help from the North Shattuck Association. Over 75 farmers now sell at the three Berkeley Farmers’ Markets, which serve over 9,000 people weekly.
Today, the markets serve as the heart of Berkeley’s alternative food system. People convene to eat, debate about local issues, listen to music, take part in special events, and above all, sample and shop for local and seasonal organic food. Many Bay Area restaurants, schools, co-ops, and food justice programs buy their produce from the markets.
The markets maintain very strict standards. The Berkeley markets were the first in the nation to ban methyl bromide, a toxic soil fumigant used in strawberries and grapes. The markets were also first to ban genetically modified foods—from the produce to the baking powder used in baked goods. In the future, the markets will become zero-waste zones, meaning that nothing will enter the landfill; everything, down to food scraps, will be recycled or composted.
“Whatever we have called it—’organic,’ ‘sustainable,’ ‘non-industrial,’ or ‘natural’—we have always had our eyes on improving the state of agriculture in California and in the nation, to get the pesticides out of it,” says Kirk Lumpkin, who has coordinated special events for over 14 years. “We have strived to be a model of the best practices in cultivating the markets’ relationships with farmers and with the urban community.”
What sets the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets apart is a commitment to environmental and social justice. The markets support small-scale, local farmers dedicated to providing alternatives to a model that uses harmful chemicals, depletes the soil of nutrients, and requires fossil fuels to transport food cross-country—or even cross-continent—before it lands on your plate. Farmers come to the Berkeley markets from the Sacramento and the San Joaquin valleys and elsewhere, but in general, no farm is over 200 miles away.
The markets are known for being farmer-focused. At a time when many markets are growing by selling prepared foods and crafts, the Berkeley markets maintain a deep commitment to supporting the farmers’ work while creating community health. Ecology Center market staff work hard to ensure that the farms that sell at the markets meet strict organic and quality standards. Market staffers are dedicated to consumer education: They are always on-hand to answer questions, provide fact sheets or handouts on a wide variety of topics, or direct shoppers to the latest cooking or nutrition demonstration. “Some of my best moments as an Ecology Center employee were when I answered someone’s question at our booth, and it was clear that it connected the dots for them,” says Lumpkin.
The markets serve as a hub for food justice programs such as the Ecology Center’s own Farm Fresh Choice, the People’s Grocery, and Spiral Gardens. These programs source produce from the farmers and distribute it to areas in Berkeley and Oakland that lack access to fresh organic foods. The Berkeley Farmers’ Markets were the first in California to accept electronic benefit transfer cards that replaced paper food stamps. The markets truly are a place where people from all walks of life come together over quality food.
It’s no wonder that the markets have gained accolades over the years, including being voted ‘best of’ by East Bay Express readers year after year until the category was retired. Chefs know that the markets offer the best produce: Chez Panisse, Lalime’s, Eccolo, and Venus restaurants buy their ingredients from the Berkeley markets. The eat-local movement—the locavores—are dedicated to eating food grown or harvested within a 100-mile radius of San Francisco. Members of the group can regularly be found at the market, urging shoppers to compete in the eat-local challenges.
The Berkeley markets wouldn’t get very far without dedicated Ecology Center staff and volunteers. Each week you’ll find market managers Ben Feldman and Rosalie Fanshel out on site. “What defines the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets is the abiding consistency that our staff has displayed in living up to our commitment of being open year-round, rain or shine, and seeing farmers and customers also live up to that commitment and make real a community that we all share,” Lumpkin says.
Former market manager Penny Leff retired from her post two years ago after more than seven years in the saddle. Leff says, “There was probably one moment that came every market day, after all the signs and the traffic cones and the recycling bins and the information booth were set up, after we had squeezed out a space for the last, late farmer, or after we had negotiated four different musicians into spots that didn’t overlap in jarringly discordant ways—there was one moment every market day when I stopped to breathe and look around at all the amazingly beautiful fruits and vegetables, the crowds of people buying and selling and enjoying the day in all the ways they do. Every market day I looked around and thought, ‘We’re very lucky to be here.'”
A few farmers have been selling at the markets for 20 years. Says Leff, “The farmers who are the heart of the Berkeley Farmers’ Market have actually grown the market, and the rest of us and all the rest of the festival that is now the Berkeley Farmers’ Market grew up all around them. It is their market. Always remember where the apostrophe goes.”