To Market, To Market…

Crescent City Farmers Market continues to expand, breaking into new locations
Illustration by Tony Healey

A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.


When the opening bell of the Crescent City Farmers Market first rang on Saturday, Sept. 30, 1995, it signaled the start of a fresh food revolution that continues today. Market founders Richard McCarthy, Sharon Litwin and John Abajian knew the city’s chefs longed for fresh, local ingredients as much as they did when they banded together to bring the farmers back to the city by creating the nonprofit Market Umbrella.

The original Crescent City Farmers Market, located on the corner of Magazine and Girod streets, operated Saturday mornings from 8 a.m. until noon. Over time, markets expanded, contracted, added days and changed locations. Today, Market Umbrella operates seven different farmers markets weekly, in locations ranging from Bywater to Rivertown’s historic district in Kenner.

Over the years, the market has stayed true to its vision, scrupulously avoiding the sale of nonfood or secondary market items. Every market vendor must produce what they sell and their practices are carefully screened. Market staff regularly visits farms and production facilities to ensure quality and authenticity.

No longer just a Saturday affair, markets are now on Tuesday mornings Uptown, Thursday afternoons in Mid-City and at the original French Market site on Wednesdays. In the spring of 2018, the city of Kenner invited Market Umbrella to assume operations of their Saturday Rivertown market. The breezy, Mississippi levee location at LaSalle’s Landing provided a perfect shady spot for a market, but the city had difficulties retaining farmers. With an approved vendor list of over 85 seasonal and full-time food producers, the Crescent City Farmers Market was able to change the size and scope of Rivertown’s market quickly.

When selecting vendors at any location, the goal is to offer a mix of 60% produce, 20% proteins and 20% value added products, such as baked goods, pastas, jams, jellies and other prepared foods. Each market varies slightly, but fresh produce always remains the paramount offering.

The Ochsner Experiment

In January 2019, Market Umbrella experienced unprecedented expansion, growing to a total of seven weekly markets. Collaborating with Ochsner Hospital, a Wednesday afternoon market opened on Jefferson Highway. Looking to serve both the surrounding community and Ochsner’s 6,000 employees, the company’s shopper incentives include weekly social media postings redeemable at the market’s information booth for $5 in tokens.

The market’s token system has long been a study of social justice in action. Shoppers use credit cards to purchase wooden tokens, taken as cash by market vendors. Those receiving government assistance are eligible for Market Match, a program that doubles their tokens up to $20 in value.

Despite best efforts, Wednesday’s French Market site simply was not a success. Engaging with regular customers there, the market team discovered most were coming from Bywater, an area of the city lacking in fresh grocery access. By moving to the Rusty Rainbow at Crescent Park, a true neighborhood market developed. Vendors increased from eight to 18. Most shoppers come on foot, many accompanied by children and dogs.

Bucktown Success

January 2019 also saw the debut of a new Friday-afternoon market at Bucktown Marina. Located just over the levee at the Jefferson-Orleans Parish line, its close proximity to the docks lured in a new vendor, A & B Seafood. Fisherman Brad Berktoniere’s says his secret weapon is his 12-year-old son, Cameron, who, he says, is as knowledgeable about their seafood selection as an ancient mariner. Never saw a soft shell shrimp before? Cameron will explain all about this little-known delicacy as he picks through boiled crabs, selecting the biggest and heaviest for his customers.

Friday-afternoon crowds linger, enjoying late afternoon breezes blowing in from the lake as the scent of grilled sausages and other dinner-ready possibilities tempt them to stay for an impromptu picnic. By 7 p.m., vendors are packing up, ready to greet another crowd of hungry market shoppers on Saturday morning, as Market Umbrella continues to fulfill its mission of public markets for public good.

 

Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.