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Farmers' Markets: Who Benefits?

Oakland offers rent-free space for everything from crepes to clothing, and local businesses are asking what the city gets in return.



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"The Grand Lake market has become phenomenally successful beyond our wildest dreams," Kernighan continued. She described the lines outside Arizmendi, Lakeshore Cafe, Starbucks, and Peet's on Saturday mornings; the pedestrian traffic that slows to a standstill on Lakeshore, the parking difficulties that encourage residents to walk to the market from a half-mile away. The market, she and others began to realize, "has really some wonderful benefits, but it also had some downsides that need to be dealt with."

It's this sort of gap in city policy that motivated the formation of the Oakland Food Policy Council, which began meeting two years ago to advise the city council on issues pertaining to food security and public health. Early this year, the city council listened to a ten-minute presentation by the food policy council of its first set of recommendations. Many of them addressed ways to standardize farmers' markets so that they accept food stamps and are more accessible to poor communities. But coordinator Alethea Harper said there is no timeline to implement the proposals. "We're learning that policy can be slow," she said.

Yet even if the city council does get around to the proposals, none of them addresses the issue of including more Oakland-based vendors at the markets.

As for concerns such as parking difficulties and competition with brick-and-mortar stores, Kernighan's office put together an advisory committee of local residents and merchants in April 2007 that meets regularly. She said she has also begun negotiating with the Agricultural Institute of Marin "about them contributing some money for the upkeep of the park," which was not designed for the large crowds it now hosts on a weekly basis. "I think we need to deal with the issue of whether the markets contribute somehow to the use of their space, whether it's a street or a park."

After her three rejections from the Grand Lake market, Little Paper Monkey's Aparna Rao is ready to give up. "The last time I applied I really thought I'd get in; I got no explanation," she said while sipping tea near her Grand Avenue apartment. Now Rao has her eyes on another dream — on a process that is much more arduous, but just may bear fruit — a storefront.

Located down the street from her, the artisans' cooperative she has planned would connect Oakland artists with their target local clientele. The idea emerged out of her frustrating experience with the Grand Lake market, and her realization that she was not alone. "It seems like the markets are here, and the artisans are here; I just want to bring them together," she said.

Right now, she has two young kids to keep her busy. But sometime in the future when she gathers the resources to open a shop, she thinks it'll be a hit in her neighborhood. And if all goes according to plan, she'll have the farmers' market to thank for, if nothing else, motivating a new local brick-and-mortar enterprise. 

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