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Homegrown Idea

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A local nonprofit corners the farmers’ market and strengthens community at the same time

A culture of open-air food markets once thrived in New Orleans and across the country, but markets faded as consumers gravitated to the convenience of grocery stores for their shopping. Along with the disappearance of farmers’ markets, many of their social and health-related benefits disappeared, too. When he first started the Crescent City Farmers Market, now celebrating its 15th year, Richard McCarthy thought it would be an easy task to help New Orleans recapture some of what was lost.

“I had a naive concept that the market would just be about farmers selling fruits of their labor,” he says. “All I had to do was pull them together, and the market would run itself. Instead, the market runs us.”

McCarthy is the executive director of the nonprofit organization Market Umbrella (often known by its Web address, marketumbrella.org), which operates the Crescent City Farmers Market. These days, the CCFM actually consists of three markets held in parking lots around the city—one Saturday mornings in the Warehouse District, one Tuesday mornings Uptown and one Thursday afternoons in Mid-City. Annually, the markets ring up $3.1 million in total sales and create an economic impact of $8.9 million.

But the logistics of running three markets is about half of what Market Umbrella does, according to McCarthy. “We believe in the role of public markets as an avenue for social change,” he explains. “When people come together in a market, it strengthens ties in a community. And we believe in regionalism, that markets create connections between urban and rural areas. Overall, what we do touches on public health, economic development and urban-planning issues.”
Market Umbrella looks to influence public policy by publishing research and posting short films on its YouTube channel. It supports community initiatives through its Crescent Fund, and has helped 30 other markets throughout the Gulf Coast establish themselves. McCarthy says that a group from Sydney, Australia, is flying in to learn about CCFM’s operations.

Back in 1995, McCarthy and two partners pitched the farmers’ market idea to Loyola University, whose mission includes fostering social justice. Having found a valuable backer, McCarthy soon realized the limits of his misconceptions. One misconception, for example, was that the surrounding region contained a network of small farmers growing diverse crops who would jump at the chance to participate in a market.

“The agricultural heritage of Louisiana is not one of small farms but a plantation economy, focusing largely on sugar,” he says. “And once we found small farmers, how many wanted to spend their time dealing with the public instead of farming? How many wanted to come to New Orleans at all? When I invited them here, it was like I was inviting them to Beirut. Regional connections between the rural and urban had kind of broken down.”

Nevertheless, McCarthy was able to sign up farmers and has watched their businesses evolve over the years. At the markets, they learn what their customers want. A chef might ask them to pick squash a little earlier for a smaller size. Or a fisherman might be asked for a certain type of shrimp he thought wasn’t in demand. McCarthy has also seen a rise in the number of farmers and more young people choosing farming as a career.

The CCFM itself has evolved and grown. For one, it has established a system allowing credit card holders as well as food stamp recipients to purchase wooden coins for use at the stalls. Now the organization finds itself running a banking system with $300,000 circulating annually. One business, however, that McCarthy is wary of is real estate.

“Over the years, people have mentioned us getting a bricks-and-mortar space, but once you own a building, you have to maintain it. You can become trapped,” he says. “We want to stay light on our feet.” He points out that the downtown market reopened 10 weeks after Katrina, which wouldn’t have happened with a building in the mix.

Back when the CCFM first began, only about 2,000 markets existed around the country, according to USDA figures. The term “locavore,” meaning a devotee of locally grown foods, didn’t exist yet. Now the U.S. has more than 6,100 markets, and “locavore” was the Oxford University Press’s 2007 word of the year. If McCarthy isn’t a visionary, at least he should be considered a co-author of a dynamic national trend.

McCarthy’s father came from a established local family, but his mother was from London. As with many others in the city’s history, a visit to Mardi Gras ensnared her. McCarthy grew up Uptown, but feeling stifled by the weight of city’s entrenched ways, he decided to go to London for university. He studied sustainable third-world development and realized much of the material applied to Louisiana. Focusing on food policy, he returned to New Orleans to finish his thesis but had no intention of sticking around. However, he also became ensnared.

“What was suffocating to me about New Orleans as a child was endearing to me as an adult,” McCarthy says. “I really appreciated the unique sense of place.”

Along the way, he reconnected with Bonnie Goldblum, a friend he’d been in love with since he was 12; she had also left and returned. They shared the same passion for food and New Orleans and eventually married. Today, they have teenage daughter.

“Kids in New Orleans now have a comfort level with uncertainty, because of Katrina but also because of how the world is changing,” he ways. “But in a way New Orleans has always been like that. We make it up as we go along.”