Urban Field Notes: Heart of the City Farmers’ Market
San Francisco’s Civic Center plays host to a market like no other.May 8, 2014
Every Wednesday and Sunday, from 7a.m. to 5p.m., dozens of farmers and prepared food vendors converge on UN Plaza in Civic Center. Their trucks, carts, tents and stalls create the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market. Having operated since 1981, this farmers’ market is the second oldest in the city and it’s one of my favorites. While its long tenure sets it apart, Heart of the City distinguishes itself from San Francisco’s other farmers’ markets in myriad ways.
More than produce Sometimes I stop by on my morning commute to pick up some fruit (most often kiwis, dates, grapefruit, or strawberries). Other weeks I come at lunchtime (usually for the tamales). What I love about this market is the incredible variety of products being offered by the vendors: fruits, vegetables, eggs, nuts, cheese, honey, mushrooms, flowers and even seafood. Primarily from the Bay Area and Central Valley, the vendors bring the broad array of California’s agriculture to San Francisco each week. Only a few other markets — such as the Alemany Farmers’ Market and the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market — offer a comparable cornucopia.
Broad customer base The market’s broad customer base sets it apart from most other markets. Midday on Wednesdays, the place is hopping. Civic Center office workers grab lunch and find seats at some of the plastic tables and chairs scattered around the plaza. Residents of the Tenderloin and SoMa neighborhoods taste samples, haggle over prices and find the freshest of what’s on offer. Meanwhile, tourists and school groups wander through. The place is packed and humming with energy, especially on sunny days.
A model for integrating CalFresh into farmers’ markets Heart of the City also distinguishes itself by how many low-income customers it serves. This is partly because the vendors’ prices are often competitive with or cheaper than those at grocery stores and supermarkets (especially considering the freshness of the offerings at the market!). But it is also because the market has worked hard to let customers know that they can use their food stamp benefits (called CalFresh in California) here. Customers can swipe their CalFresh debit card at the information booth to purchase tokens that function like cash in the market. Nearly 70 percent of all CalFresh transactions at San Francisco’s roughly two dozen farmers’ markets happen at Heart of the City, totaling approximately $200,000 each year.
The market cycle As the market day comes to a close, some of the leftover food is donated to local non-profits to be given away at food pantries. The rest is packed up by the vendors and trucked back to their respective farms. Then a few days later, the market returns – a twiceweekly cycle that happens all year — rain or shine — right in the heart of the city.