A traveling tradition of mine is to check out the local farmers’ market to try the coffee and see what veggies are in season. What I love about farmers’ markets is that they tend to represent the surrounding community, and for a visitor, this is the best way to get a landscape of the local commerce. I might be biased, but I think there is no farmers’ market that represents its community more than the Baltimore Farmers’ Market also called the JFX Market (named for the Jones Falls Expressway – I-83—under which the market is held in the heart of the city). This market also happens to be the closest market to our house and is our Sunday morning ritual from April to December. And guess what guys…it’s back for 2013 and this girl is thrilled!
I know you’ve probably been to a farmers’ market, but there is something unique about this place as it represents the diversity and the harmonious coalescence of urban Baltimore and rural/agricultural Maryland. Another blogger notes that “in scale and diversity (of customers and produce) this baltimore market is better than any in manhattan (sic).” You see, even a New Yorker agrees, it is an example of an urban farmers’ market at its best.
My Market Experience
The expressway makes for a nice shelter, like a big, noisy roof, which just adds to the festive atmosphere. Despite the crowds that make of thousands of patrons each Sunday, the market still manifests a small town feel in its urban conclave.
I usually enter near the Zeke’s coffee stand where we queue up behind a long line of coffee drinkers that stretches around the corner. Lines don’t depress or frustrate people here, they only add to the anticipation and excitement of the day…and even more so on the opening day when everyone’s been waiting for this moment since December. As I near the front of the line, the guy grinding the beans exclaims, “thanks for waiting folks!” The woman in front of me and I both respond in unison with an over-excited “It’s worth it!” bonded by our giddiness over market day. We may have had Zeke’s coffee during the winter months, but there’s something different about drinking it while you stroll around the market.
Typically, I take a lap around the expanse of stalls before I purchase breakfast and my weekly produce. As I stroll, I take in the mixed smell of the coffee, pit beef, and fish admiring the beautifully painted columns when I catch a whiff of stale urine, as during the week, this is a parking lot which doubles as an outdoor bathroom. Elsewhere it might be gross, but here, it’s all about the urban farmers’ market experience!
On opening day, the produce is limited mostly to tubers and hardy greens, but the seedlings and plants are abundant. At the very least, I was able to stock up on our weekly regulars of apples, yogurt, kale, brussel sprouts, and mushrooms. Hopefully next week, I’ll stock up on some seedlings to start planting in our little urban garden (i.e. a series of pots on our patio).
After I make my necessary purchases, I’m ready for my breakfast which I have planned for months since the market closed in December: Mushroom fritters from whom is affectionately call “the mushroom lady”. I don’t know what it is about these mushrooms, but they are heavenly. They consist of fried beer-battered oyster mushrooms topped with fresh spring mix, basil, sheep’s cheese (the mushroom lady corrected me today when I was describing it as goat cheese to a curious passerby), and her homemade hot sauce. This hot sauce deserves it’s own description because I have not tasted anything like it. For weeks last Fall, Cory and I schemed to make sure that we got a hold of the jars she sells of them on the last day of the market. It tastes great on stuff that we make, but it’s a completely different experience to eat it on the fritters and the other delicious meals she has (portabello mushroom sandwiches, mushroom quinoa salad, etc.).
The best part of the mushroom experience (aside from the eating part of course) is standing in line. It’s a bonding experience. People ask us what we’re waiting for as they walk by. No matter what customer you ask, they speak with such excitement about the food they are going to eat. The dude behind me in line noted to the Mushroom Lady that he was up all night thinking about eating these fritters. Amen, dude, amen. We bond over our eagerness for this meal. On slower mornings (not this morning, though), you can see the proprietress chatting and greeting people that she knows. She always has a jovial harshness about her. With her distinct Israeli accent she exclaims to each customer as she hands them their food “to your health, sweetheart!”
Although typically there’s never a spot to sit down at the 4 crumb-filled tables set out for eaters, this time I got one (I usually sit on one of the parking blocks). Since it’s communal, I always end up in conversation with folks at my table, usually about the food. The couple I sat with this time walked from Federal Hill and we discussed how ready we all were for the market to open. That’s why it was bustling at 8am this morning (when typically it’s a bit sparser that early).
Certainly my motivations for going to the market involve my grocery needs and supporting local business, but that’s not why I’m so eager to be there every Sunday. I go there because it showcases the best of what Baltimore has to offer. The food, the people, and best of all the relationships. People running into their friends and colleagues. More than once I’ve bonded with a work colleague who I ran into—when I see them at a meeting later that week, we talk about the peas or the tomatoes that we purchased the weekend before. I am eager for the conversations I have with the vendors about what is newly in season. I love this market because it is not just for the wealthy elite locavores, this is market for everyone and I am grateful to be a part of it each week.
Although it didn’t really fit into the narrative, I want to draw you to the info about food access in Baltimore and how it relates to the awesomeness at the market after these photos. Take a look!
A Little Extra Info
Now that you’ve read a little bit about my experience, I thought I’d give you a very brief bit about what I know about the JFX Market’s involvement in food security in Baltimore. I-83, and thus the market under which it resides straddles Downtown Baltimore and East Baltimore. Although East Baltimore houses the prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital, it is pretty much a big ‘ol food desert (as you can see from this map) aside from the more affluent neighborhoods closer to the harbor (Butcher’s Hill, Fells Point, Canton, etc.). This is a huge opportunity for the market to be opened up to folks experiencing food insecurity, and Baltimore City is noticing. As of last July, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and Baltimore Bucks benefits can now be used at the Farmer’s Market. Baltimore Bucks is a program where qualifying participants can get up to $10 in matching funds to spend at the market making it that much more enticing to purchase food at the market.
The Center for a Livable Future based at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (not one mile away from the market) works closely on food issues in Baltimore. In a recent interview on the local radio program, the Marc Steiner Show, Anne Palmer from CLF noted that Baltimore City farmers’ markets are much more accessible to people experiencing food insecurity than other urban markets both through the programs mentioned above and that prices are generally very competitive with area grocery stores which is a unique quality. In their research, they saw a sharp increase in attendance to the JFX Market the weekend after the SNAP and Baltimore Bucks programs were introduced. Although SNAP sales at the markets account for only 1% of all sales, it is a demonstration of potential to connect people within the East Baltimore community to affordable, healthy foods. The CLF and Maryland Hunger Solutions continue to collect data on this progress which is an exciting step forward to eradicate food insecurity in Baltimore.