Saturday, January 13, 2007

Consumer City and Santa Monica's Farmer's Market

A few years ago, Ed Glaeser, Jed Koko and Albert Saiz wrote a very nice paper called "Consumer City" (see They argued that urban economists had devoted too much attention to the productivity benefits of living in cities. They pushed economists to think through the consumption benefits of living in cities. Today, I did some field work at the Santa Monica Farmer's Market and I can serve as a witness supporting the Glaeser et. al. claims. My travel cost to this market is low. Santa Monica lies 3 miles west of my apartment in Westwood.

Even though it is mid-January, this market featured amazing diversity with multiple types of fruits and veggies. Quality adjusted, the prices were very very low.

Fresh produce sellers know that the typical buyer at the Santa Monica market is a "green" and has some money. This self selects high quality, healthy stuff to be sold. On the demand side, new LA residents such as myself have heard by word of mouth that this is a great market and this attracts dudes like me. See how this creates a virtuous cycle? The cops were out in force at the market to make sure that nobody felt threatened by Santa Monica's bum population.

Putting on my urban economics hat, if I was the only buyer of produce at the market --- I doubt that I would have had the vast variety to choose from. Santa Monica is a classic "consumer city". The sunshine, clean air and beach views only increase my urge to go there every saturday to shop again!

All four Santa Monica markets are Certified Farmers' Markets (CFMs). They are organized and managed by the city for the mutual benefit of all who enjoy them. An estimated 900,000 shoppers visit the markets every year. Collectively, they provide their customers year-round with a selection of fresh, seasonal produce that is pre-eminent among market programs in the state.

Certified Farmers' Markets were established in 1978, when then-governor Jerry Brown signed legislation known as the Direct Marketing Act. This enabled California farmers to sell their own produce directly to consumers at locations designated by the Department of Agriculture.

There are three basic criteria for CFMs: (1) they must consist of farmers who possess a current Certified Producer's Certificate issued to them by their county's agricultural commissioner; (2) they must be non-profit entities, sponsored by the farmers themselves, a non-profit organization or a municipality; and (3) all produce and products sold at a California farmers' market must be grown or made in California. These simple guidelines help to ensure that CFMs continue to exist for the benefit of the communities they serve.

In 1979, the first Los Angeles County farmers' market opened in Gardena. It was a Saturday morning market consisting of four stands. Interfaith Hunger Coalition sponsored the market in the parking lot of a local church.

Today there are over 300 Certified Farmers' Markets in California. The high quality of produce and the open-air experience top the list of patrons' reasons for shopping at their local CFM. Those who haven't ventured outside the walls of commercial supermarkets to experience the exhilaration of shopping amid the diversity of produce and people at farmers' markets are often the same who charge them with being inconvenient. But enter once, twice, three times the exciting culture of open-air farmers' markets, and soon you find it's terribly inconvenient not to have them around. Here you'll find the freshest and best tasting produce money can buy; here you'll meet new and interesting people without even trying.

In addition to the many social and economic benefits that accrue to the communities in which they occur, farmers' markets give farmers a chance to experiment with new and old-fashioned varieties of fruits and vegetables not grown commercially. Moreover, farmers can afford to wait until the produce is tree-ripened, before picking and bringing it to the market. A ripe peach is unacceptable to commercial produce-brokers, because it won't withstand the stresses of shipping and storage, as it passes through commercial marketing channels.

A guiding principle of Santa Monica Farmers' Markets is to accommodate as many California farmers as possible. This ensures the greatest variety of seasonal produce grown in the state. Three of the four markets are located in bustling retail-restaurant districts, where local businesses offer an exciting mix of merchandise, services and food. The Santa Monica markets stand out for their unmatched selection of top quality produce from season to season.

In this context, a rich diversity of cultures and crops allows for a fascinating exchange of ideas, customs and recipes each week. Holidays are marked by extra sales of Asian pears for the Chinese New Year or specialty herbs for the week-long Iranian New Year, as well as the more familiar American holiday traditions.

A happy woman holding a handful of pumpkins from the Farmers' Market in Santa MonicaThe markets host a variety of special and educational events year-round. The "Lunch with a Chef Program" features weekly cooking demonstrations by chefs from some of the area's finest restaurants. Groups of local school children visit throughout the year on field-trips. During presentations of market produce, they have a chance to smell, touch and taste both the common and the uncommon. Seasonal festivals include Cinco de Mayo, Melon Mania in July and the All-You-Can-Carry Pumpkin Patch in October. Farmers' markets, of course, are requisite shopping for local chefs, not to mention the site of numerous cookbook book-signings, anniversary events, and a popular tourist destination throughout the year.

Every Saturday morning at 11 am, KCRW-FM 89.9 broadcasts the Market Report on the Good Food Program hosted by Chef Evan Kleiman of Angeli Caffe on Melrose Avenue. In the Market Report, Laura Avery, supervisor of Santa Monica Farmers' Markets and manager of the Wednesday Market, reviews the week's produce and provides the listener with tips and insights on the best and freshest of what's in season. Tune in, turn on, and have a peach of a day at any one of Santa Monica's four markets!