On this week’s episode of Tent Talk, our guest is Marcy Coburn, CEO of Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture in San Francisco. CUESA operates five weekly markets in the Bay Area which have been a proving ground for many incredible food makers. In our conversation with Marcy, we talk about diversifying farmers’ market communities, the importance of food education, and what it’s like to be a bellwether of food culture in California.

CUESA’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market
Photo courtesy of cuesa.org

From rural to urban

Food and farming have always been a passion for Marcy. She grew up in Steinbeck country, in the CA-99 corridor between Bakersfield and Fresno, where her family harvested apples, tomatoes, and olives. The pantry was always stocked with home-preserved goods and farm-grown sundries.

Since moving from conservative, rural Central California to the liberal San Francisco Bay Area, Marcy’s interest in food has deepened and become more complex. “I was really interested in the intersectionality between farming and the modern discourse around food,” says Marcy.

As CEO of CUESA, Marcy helps to orchestrate conversations across the aisle and find common ground through food. Farmers’ markets are a place where different people come together, no matter your political leaning.

The more the merrier

In 2016 the board of CUESA put forth an initiative for a commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. “The history of agriculture and farmers’ market is super complicated: stolen land, slavery. Agriculture has some very dark and not proud moments. It’s important to acknowledge that,” explains Marcy.

While many organizations make gestures towards diversity and inclusion, CUESA has been strategic. They’ve partnered with Bay Area groups such as La Cocina and Kitchen Table Advisors who work closely with immigrants, women, and people of color. CUESA has also set up rotation stalls for micro-businesses to ease into the farmers’ market scene.

CUESA is in the process of updating their strategic plan for years to come. “We absolutely don’t feel like we’re done, or  there. We have a lot to learn and it’s been such a learning experience for us,” says Marcy. Whether it’s who they invite to speak at events or sell at their markets, CUESA is looking for additional ways to codify diversity, equity, inclusion and justice into their farmers’ market operations.

Teaching through farmers’ markets

Marcy also has a passion for the educational side of food. She has served as both the Executive Director of the Food Craft Institute and Communications Director for the Ecological Farming Association. Now, Marcy helps oversee CUESA’s huge youth education programs. 

Foodwise Kids is a free program that serves over 3,000 public elementary school students. Every Tuesday and Thursday classes visit the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market to learn about food. Students shop the market, get a hands-on cooking lesson, and participate in comparative tastings.

CUESA also offers educational programs for high school students through Foodwise Teens. This program teaches agricultural and culinary job training as well as professional development and lessons in entrepreneurship. Students receive a stipend to work in stalls at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and sell food they grow in community gardens.

In addition to their youth education programs, each month CUESA hosts a community event centered on different themes related to food and agriculture. CUESA Talks allows community members to engage with each other about complex issues outside of the farmers’ market. Last month CUESA Talks hosted a Ballot Breakdown Party which centered on the 2018 midterm elections and how they may impact food policy in California.

At the center of the food scene

Many would consider the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market to be a culinary mecca. Since it’s opening 25 years ago, it has become a hub for chefs, foodies, tourists, and townies. It is the birthplace of renowned food and beverage makers (i.e. Bluebottle Coffee) and has been chronicled in critically-acclaimed novels.

There is a mystical nature to the emergence of the iconic farmers’ market. The story involves a visionary and a natural disaster. But Marcy will be the first to admit that the success of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market was not accidental. “We are literally at the heart of the city, but we are also in this amazing relationship with landlords and the port of San Francisco, and the city who really saw and cultivated and cared for that relationship.”

So what is the magic ingredient to recreate this model in every town? “Get developers who will put there money where their mouth is,” says Marcy. “And shoppers need to come and shop! This is a thing that will go away if you don’t support it. It’s not here by accident.”

Where can I listen to Marcy’s full episode of Tent Talk?

There are many ways to listen to Tent Talk. You can stream directly from our website or by clicking the player below. You can also easily listen on a mobile device via iTunesStitcher, YouTube, or wherever you get your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any episodes!

Do you have a farmers’ market question you’d like us to answer on air? Got an idea for a future episode topic? Is there someone you think we should interview? Please let us know!

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