Main street market: both sides of the tent

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On Wednesdays a vibrant civilization springs from trucks and vans to Nevin Plaza, bringing fresh goods to the locals. Fragrant peaches, colorful heirloom tomatoes and delicate cannoli are among the many treats to be found between the 10 or so tents that sit snugly in the courtyard. And as for quality, the produce is spray, pesticide and hormone-free.

Yet what some of the more prominent Bay Area markets boast, this one lacks – USDA-certified organic products.

Many of Wednesday’s market-goers said they were just happy to have fresh fruit and did not necessarily need the produce to be certified organic. “I’m not that particular, as long as it’s locally grown,” said Richmond resident Lora Beckers. “I’m tired of paying all that money in big box stores and not getting the value.”

Vendors at the market travel as far as 160 miles to sell their produce and baked goods to patrons. Martin Medrano, of J & J Ramos Farms in Hughson, said all their produce is pesticide, spray and chemical free — but not organic certified.  The certification, even many organic farmers say, is too much of a hurdle.

“[USDA] certification can be expensive and logistically challenging for some small producers,” said Dr. Rachel Morello-Frosch, an associate professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health.

In addition to the cost, which ranges from a several hundred to several thousand dollars depending on the size of the operation, the USDA enforces strict standards regarding the history of the farmland and the chemicals and conditions to which the produce or land are introduced. Eligible producers must apply through an accredited certifying agent who will request details on the organic products, a three-year history of the land and a thorough organic system plan, among other requirements. This commitment of time, finances and manpower is not worth the investment to some farmers, although the USDA National Organic Program offers a cost share program that reimburses eligible producers for a part of the fees of certification.

To accommodate such a shift, some farmers must raise the price of their produce. Many, like Medrano, instead choose to travel hundreds of miles a week, zipping throughout the Bay Area and opting to make money by selling lower priced fresh produce, rather than higher priced organic-certified produce.

In Richmond, often referred to as a “food desert,” Medrano and other small producers find an appreciative audience. Bringing fresh produce to the city, whether certified organic or not, has been one of Main Street Initiative’s and West County HEAL’s key objectives in setting up the weekly farmer’s market.

“There has been a real lack of opportunity for people in this community to have fresh produce,” said Amanda Elliott, the executive director of the Main Street Initiative, “We wanted to promote local businesses and get people out of the office and create a pedestrian atmosphere.”

While some consider the price of organic items “the cost of remaining healthy,” a recent Stanford University review of scientific papers on the subject found a more complex tale. The study of whether research shows organic foods to be safer or healthier than conventional products has been lauded and lambasted across the nation, muddying the already treacherous terrain of food and health politics.  One of the researchers’ main conclusions states, “The evidence does not suggest marked health benefits from consuming organic versus conventional foods, although organic produce may reduce exposure to pesticide residues.”

“The health effects of pesticide residues are not well known,” Morello-Frosch said.

But in a study that monitored organic and non-organic eating subjects, doctors noticed a drop in pesticide metabolites in the urine of those who consumed organic products.

Though the farmers at the Main Street Market are not USDA organic certified, they are authorized by California Certified Farmers’ Markets. CCFM makes sure all produce is grown by the farmer in California. Main Street is operated by the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association, which promotes markets in the San Francisco Bay.

Jeanne Charlot from Michelle’s Golden Brown Breads in Manteca compared markets favorably to grocery stores. “You never see the other side of a pear” in a store, she said, but in the market people can interact with the farmers who grow the products we eat. She said people often buy bread because they want to support the business, but Charlot says, “I don’t want you to support me, I want you to buy the bread because you love it.”

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