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Greenmarket Growing Pains

New York City's Greenmarket network is in many ways a microcosm of the eco-foodie world. In the past year, two of today's biggest food-related issues--the tension between local farmers and natural-food chains, and the lack of access to wholesome fare in low-income neighborhoods--have been unfolding in and around the Greenmarket, the largest urban farmers' market system in the U.S. When Whole Foods opened its third NYC store in Union Square last year, for example, followed by the opening of Trader Joe's in spring 2006, the city's largest Greenmarket (located directly across the street from the WF store) found itself in a faceoff with those wildly popular national chains. And as a thoughtful article in last week's New York Times notes, the market's thirtieth anniversary and its recent expansion into 10 new neighborhoods is sparking debate over what the nonprofit's primary mission should be: helping bring fresh produce to communities with a dearth of healthy food options, or providing foodies with microgreens, scallops, and pork fat for their dinner parties.

Do these seemingly contrary ideals--those of small farmers and large producers of organic products, food justice activists and gourmands--have to be mutually exclusive? I wince at the idea that they could be, and most green-minded foodophiles I know truly believe that good eats don't have to be the province of the elite (though the jury is definitely split on the question of small-and-local versus national-and-organic fare).

But thus far, it's been difficult for any one organization to satisfy both sides of each debate. As the Times article points out, the new Greenmarket outposts "are disappointing some shoppers and stretching thin both staff and farmers;" in trying to cater both to the nutritional needs of low-income people and the refined tastes of wealthier consumers, the nonprofit is simply unable to offer enough options to either group. Chain stores like Whole Foods, meanwhile, have been criticized for not stocking enough local products, while farmers' markets rarely supply every ingredient needed for a meal (and NYC's new system of Real Food Markets, launched by ex-Greenmarket director Nina Planck in an effort to bring people access to a larger variety of products, are far too small at the moment to help solve the problem).

So, um, what's a greenie to do? In the months to come, Plenty will be examining these issues in depth, and hopefully we'll be able to provide a few answers. The upcoming issue includes a feature on eco-artists in Los Angeles who are transforming families' front lawns into vegetable gardens, allowing them to grow all their own produce. And in the subsequent issues we'll explore how Wal-Mart's decision to go organic has changed the market for sustainable sustenance and profile five family farmers who have managed to hold on to their eco-friendly ways for generations.


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