Sustainable Cities™

San Francisco: From farm to fork

San Francisco’s farmers’ markets have become world-renowned, serving as a success story in the sustainable food movement in the United States and beyond. Partnerships between the California Department of Food and Agriculture, small-scale farmers, county and municipal governments, and other organisations have made possible this more efficient, less wasteful, and fairer method of food distribution.

Radish_in_basket - Radisser i kurv, på marked

With 20 farmers' markets in San Francisco and almost 200 in the greater San Francisco area, this city is the original capital of farmers' markets in the United States and a pioneer in the worldwide movement to revitalize local produce markets. The collaborative efforts of many different stakeholders have allowed this alternative approach to wholesale food distribution to flourish.

Farmers' markets are organised by municipal governments, community development advocates, and other non-governmental organisations, which determine market regulations and define markets' character. Often these organizers receive support from the federal government, sometimes in the form of grants from the Federal State Market Improvement Program. In San Francisco, market organisers include the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, the Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association, and the California Farmers' Markets Association. The day-to-day operations of each farmers' market are then directed by a market manager, who enforces regulations and ensures that each market day proceeds smoothly.

California's state government also serves as a source of support for San Francisco's farmers' markets. Most importantly, the state certifies farmers' markets and the farmers who sell their produce there. Farmers must meet certain quality standards, submit a crop inventory, and have their farms inspected by the county agriculture commissioner, but they are allowed to sell directly to consumers and are exempt from certain wholesale packaging requirements.

Burris Farm Market, Loxley, Alabama. Produce. By Infrogmation, New Orleans, 20 June 2010.

Above all, these farmers' markets are financial enterprises. Both market organisers and government regulators must ensure that the rules imposed on farmers' markets still provide farmers (and consumers) with sufficient incentive to participate. Indeed, San Francisco's farmers' markets have been so successful in part because the consumer base needed to support so many markets is present in the city. Thus local culture has been a determining factor in the ongoing success of this initiative.

Nonetheless, farmers' markets are more than simply a business: in benefitting both the farmer and the consumer, farmers' markets provide an important connection between rural and urban areas. By eliminating middlemen and selling their produce directly to consumers, farmers receive a larger share of the profit from their crops. At the same time, consumers benefit from access to fresh, local produce at prices that become more affordable as the market increases in size. Farmers' markets can help to revitalise downtown areas, strengthen communities, and provide an important source of education about sustainable agriculture.

Alternative Markets

As San Francisco's farmers' markets have become more institutionalised, several alternative markets have developed to respond to needs not addressed by their more mainstream counterparts.

The Heart of the City farmers' market began in 1981 to provide poorer areas of San Francisco with the same access to farm-fresh produce enjoyed in wealthier districts and to provide a marketplace for smaller growers left out of existing farmers' markets. This initiative began as a collaboration between two non-governmental organisations, with help from a grant from the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture. Heart of the City now holds two markets each week.

More recently, the San Francisco Underground Market developed to allow home kitchens making professional-quality products to sell their goods. Under California's certification scheme, these prepared foods are not allowed to be sold at most other San Francisco-area farmers' markets because the home chefs are not the primary producers. The project has grown to include 47 vendors and 1,200 attendees.

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014