July 4, 2014

Kansas City's oldest Farmers' Market

Focused as I am on farms, I had not been planning to visit any Farmers' Markets. Lucy, my good friend in Kansas City, was sure I'd find some great sustainable farmers selling produce at City Market. Since its founding in 1857, City Market has been one of the largest and oldest farmers' markets in the Midwest. The market was bursting with activity, so I headed over to the least busy vendor I could find. He was selling some small crafts and vegetable seedlings. I asked if the seedlings were grown organically. No. I asked which vendors in the market sold organic produce. He said there was one vendor who farmed organically, but was not certified. That was a stunner. This was a huge market and there was no organic produce in sight.

I wasn't quite ready to move on. As I pondered the lack of organic produce, I noticed a sign at this gentleman's booth saying he took SNAP payments. Another stunner. SNAP is the current name for the Food Stamps program. Generally you pay cash at a farmers' market or you are out of luck. In order to take SNAP payments, he would have to have a machine, much like one that takes debit card payments. A SNAP card requires password entry in order to buy food with it. And, if it's not food, you can't use your SNAP card. I looked at this vendor's table one more time to see if I'd missed some food items. No. Since no customers had showed up, I asked the vendor what I could buy with a SNAP card at his booth. He said I could buy the vegetable seedlings. At this farmers' market, people could use their SNAP card to buy food-producing plants as well as food. What a great idea! Apparently it is an old idea and it applies nationwide. The Food Stamps program was amended to allow the purchase of plants and seeds 41 years ago. A new twist on the old Maimonides quote comes to mind: "Give a person money for food and feed them for a day; teach them to grow vegetables and they feed themselves for a lifetime." Wouldn't it be a kick to meet a farmer who got their start with SNAP-funded vegetable plants and/or seeds.

A potential customer came and went. I didn't see a machine capable of taking SNAP payments. I asked the patient vendor how I could make a payment with a SNAP card. He explained that he couldn't take SNAP cards or debit cards directly, but he was happy to take wooden nickels from me instead. Okay, he didn't say that exactly. He said anyone can take their SNAP card and swipe it at the yellow information tent to receive the desired amount in special wooden tokens, good only at the City Market Farmers' Market. This very patient and helpful vendor then proceeded to tell me that I could double my SNAP dollars at this market. This farmers' market is full of great ideas. I went over to the yellow information tent to find out more. The Market will match up to $15/week of SNAP funds for items purchased at the Market. The funding for this sometimes runs out before summer's end, so patrons try to take advantage of this early in the season.

I continued touring the market in search of the lone sustainable farmer. I stalled at the Pimento Cheese stall for a small taste of the jalapeno cheese spread and a little conversation. Bill told me that he only sells his cheese at the market. And, remarkably, he makes it here as well. City Market has its own commercially licensed kitchen, available to rent by the hour, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. During our visit, this Farm to Table Kitchen was serving an educational purpose, teaching patrons about preparing food. But for Bill, it has been a culinary incubator, a place where he could perfect his pimento cheese recipe. And every week, he uses the kitchen to make the cheese he sells at the market. City Market is supporting local food entrepreneurs through this innovative kitchen.

A few aisles down, I finally found the sustainable farmer. Nature's Choice is a biodynamic, organic farm; although it is not certified at this time. Is it possible that all the Kansas-City-area organic farmers are selling to restaurants and bypassing the Farmers' Market? I did a little research at the library of first resort for those who are on the road: the internet. I came up with the Kansas City Food Circle. Their mission is to connect eaters with local, organic, and free-range food producers.

The restaurants participating with Kansas City Food Circle list the local farms who grow and produce their ingredients. I am impressed at the amount of local sourcing. I had lunch at one of their participating restaurants, the Blue Bird Bistro. They pride themselves on their support for local and sustainable farms and ranches. Our menus informed us that the food we ordered included smoked tofu from Central Soy Foods and bison from New Grass Bison Company. From this single experience, it would appear that some of the local organic farmers' products are bypassing the farmers' market. However, further research on the Kansas City Food Circle website provided a list of featured organic farmers' markets. I had finally arrived at the crux of the issue. Kansas City treats farmers' markets in a separate-but-equal fashion. There are farmers' markets for organic growers. And there are farmers' markets for conventional growers. But they don't mix. After all, what would they talk about?