Not a street fair or festival, North Park Farmers’ Market builds community through school money-back program and vendor regulations
By Morgan M. Hurley | SDUN Assistant Editor
Uptown has its share of farmers markets, but one in particular is making a name for itself by focusing on the surrounding community.
The North Park Farmers’ Market, which runs every Thursday from 3 to 7 p.m., is located on North Park Way at Herman Avenue and uses part of the adjoining CVS parking lot.
Although a farmers market has existed in North Park in some form or another for over ten years, SD Weekly Markets – who also operate the Little Italy Mercado on Saturdays and the Pacific Beach Farmers’ Market on Tuesdays – took over the fledgling market two years ago. Support has risen steadily ever since.
At just under 50 vendors – a combination of certified farmers, artisan food makers, and arts and craft merchants – the North Park market is smaller in scale than its sister markets. Little Italy has 125 vendors, for instance, but thanks to conscientious management, the North Park market has developed a sense of community and found ways to give back at the same time.
Vendors wishing to participate in the SD Weekly Markets have strict rules to agree to that are not usually in place at other markets, and might surprise some wishing to join the fray.
Brijet Myers, operations manager of SD Weekly Markets, said they do not allow any deep frying, and foods with high fructose corn syrup, including some barbecue sauces, granola mixes and baked goods, are forbidden as well.
“We check ingredient lists and food sources before we let vendors into our markets,” Myers said. “We value the responsibility we have to the shoppers. They come … because they desire healthy foods. We don’t want to say we’re a healthy place to buy food and then allow vendors to sell deep-fried items and make the shoppers wonder which items really are good for them. We just like to be consistent and a healthy place to eat.”
Myers emphasized that the North Park market is not a street fair or festival, but actually an outdoor grocery store.
“The smell of deep-fried foods and kettle corn distracts from the smell of fresh basil, ripe strawberries and all the other fragrant smells fresh food and flowers produce,” she said, adding that many vendors simply adjust their offerings in order to comply.
Local North Park restaurants are also joining in. A story in the last North Park market newsletter identified numerous chefs and owners who see the value of bringing farm-to-table into their kitchens, and use the market as a source.
Myers also said SD Weekly Markets often act as a conduit for those wishing to access farmers that sell in their market network, including their own vendors.
“We encourage our prepared-food vendors to source their meat and produce from local farms. If they need help finding people to work with, we know the farms and ranches that will fill big orders for vendors and give them nice wholesale prices so they can still offer their meals at affordable rates,” she said.
Started at the end of 2011 as a joint effort between North Park Main Street, the North Park Farmers’ Market and local parent-teacher associations and organizations, the “Cash Crops” program is a way North Park merchants can give back to the neighborhood’s schools.
Each week, when parents from any of the participating schools come to the market to eat or make purchases, their total expenditures are tallied and a five percent rebate will be returned to the school of their choice on a quarterly basis.
The program currently works with McKinley Elementary School, Roosevelt Middle School, St. Patrick Elementary, McGill School of Success, St. Augustine High School, Birney Elementary School, Albert Einstein Academies, North Park Christian Pre-School and Jefferson Elementary.
Myers said though Cash Crops initially got a “slow start,” sales picked up as the word continues to get out, and funds to the local schools continue to climb.
“We just cut the new checks [this week],” Myers said. “On average, we are sending between $40 and $65 to the schools. When the Birney school recently had the fire damage, we offered a ‘double cash crop’ and gave them ten percent. They were able to replace some playground equipment that was destroyed by the fire.”
On Sept. 20, a Back to School event will be held at the North Park market, in an effort to make the Cash Crops program more visible to parents. Giveaways, raffles and healthy-lunch recipes will be offered to attendees.
With 55 farmers markets operating in and around San Diego County every week, everyone seems to want in on the action. While being a vendor may sound like a simple task, Myers says there is a bit of detail required to pull it off successfully, so SD Weekly Market offers vendor training.
“We hold Vendor 101 classes every five weeks or so for those looking to start a small business that sells at Farmers’ Markets, or people who have a small business and want to take their products to markets,” Myers said. “Feedback from people who have gone through the course has been extremely positive. They get a clear picture of what it takes.”
Chef Cruz Caudillo, familiar with the classes, said setting up as a vendor could be confusing. “The permitting process, insurance, commissary requirements, and even the equipment needed to setup might be confusing to a small start up company, so its nice to have a single class with a seasoned veteran market manager,” Caudillo said in a recent North Park market newsletter.
“Some people take the class thinking they want to start up a booth, but after getting all the information about investment of time and money, they decide it isn’t a good fit for them,” Myers said. “So they spend $55 on the class, instead of hundreds of dollars on permits and product only to find that they don’t have the time or savings to get started.
The next vendor training is Sept. 17, from 6 to 8:30 p.m.
“People thank us for saving them the trouble of wasting so much time and money,” Myers said. “Others thank us for guiding them through the process and we just love seeing our graduates in their booths at the markets in San Diego, doing what they love.”
For more information about vendor training, to submit a vendor application online or get more information about Cash Crops, visit sdweeklymkarkets.com. For a complete vendor list for the North Park market, visit northparkfarmersmarket.com.