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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But the largest are run by nonprofit management organizations. The Fremont-based Urban Village Farmers' Market Association operates the Old Oakland, Montclair, and Temescal markets. Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association from Concord runs the markets at Jack London Square and Kaiser hospital. And the Grand Lake market, the largest of them all, is put on by the Agricultural Institute of Marin.

Nestled in neighborhood business districts and promoted to the city council with promises of economic vitality, they're sold as an embodiment not only of the 1990s credo of seasonal cooking, but of the au courant catchphrase "shop local." Eat produce from nearby farms; shop on foot in the neighborhood; support community commerce.

But Oakland entrepreneurs like Raquel Contreras have discovered that the farmers' markets aren't as welcoming to locals as they seem. Standing over a Bunsen burner at a table she set up across the street from the Grand Lake market, Contreras fed a toothpick-size morsel of her mushroom tamale to a potential customer. It was an unseasonably warm Saturday, and crowds gathered in waves to sample what she calls "morning tamales." She made them from scratch in her kitchen just up the street. But for all the sales she made that morning, she figured she would have done much better if her table had not been in the Kwik Way driveway but in the official market on the other side of Lake Park Avenue.

"They make it so tough," she said of the market's organizers and their decision to deny her application to sell at the Grand Lake Farmers' Market. "They say they have no more space there, and they already have a tamale vendor," she said, adding with frustration, "They're not even local!" referring to the Marin-based Donna's Tamales.

But the Agricultural Institute hasn't shut Contreras out completely. She sells food at its Novato farmers' market. She sees the markets as a first step to the launch of the brick-and-mortar shop she dreams of opening later this year. "Before I open my establishment I want to go to my client base so when it opens up they know where to come," she said. "But if I have more of a client base in Novato, I might consider opening there."

Aparna Rao has applied three times to the Grand Lake market. She, too, left the process feeling rejected, confused, and exasperated. Her business, Little Paper Monkeys, sells screen-printed baby clothes she designs in her Grand Avenue apartment, with Oakland and Berkeley insignias that accompany the animal motifs. "When I applied, they said you're at a real disadvantage if you only want to be in Oakland," she said. "This is my neighborhood! I have two small children. It's not as easy for me to go up to Novato."

According to the Agricultural Institute of Marin's Brad Burger, his organization receives ten to twenty applications per week from vendors vying for a spot at their most popular markets. "There's only limited space where we can put people," he said, "so that makes it really competitive." But when space does open up, Burger said, "to the best of our ability we try to prioritize local businesses," such as one recent addition to the Grand Lake market, Oakland's Bicycle Coffee Company.

But a review of the non-farm vendors at the Grand Lake market reveals that only a fraction call Oakland home, with many more slots going to entrepreneurs from the North Bay and elsewhere. Of the non-farm vendors whose place of origin could be determined from the Agricultural Institute of Marin's records, 19 percent were from Oakland, 17 percent were from Berkeley or Emeryville, and most of the rest were from the North Bay.

On the corner of Washington and 9th streets in Old Oakland, where one full block and three half-blocks of farm stands and food purveyors hawk their provisions every Friday, a sandwich board reads: "Please, no farmers' market seating. Restaurant patrons only." The sign, posted above the logo of the Urban Village Farmers' Market Association and near Levende East restaurant's outdoor tables, offers a glimpse at the friction between Oakland farmers' markets and brick-and-mortar businesses.

Likewise, walk into Endgame, one block north of the center of the Old Oakland farmers' market. At 1 p.m., while office workers, students, and local residents crowded the market's corridor down 9th, owners Chris Ruggiero and Anthony Brown fiddled on their laptops at the counter in an empty game store. That's usual, Brown said. Ever since the market moved its truck parking from 9th to 10th Street, where Endgame is located, "our Fridays pretty much tanked," he said.

Even though the market only uses about half the block of Washington, it closes the entire block to traffic. And so with 10th Street reserved for vendor parking and Washington Street closed, the market effectively eliminates pedestrian traffic from Endgame's corner of Old Oakland. "They basically maroon us for five hours a day," Ruggiero explained. "We're basically a parking lot," added Brown.

What frustrates them most about the farmers' market is a sense of entitlement it gives off. "They've never really made any effort to talk to people down here," Ruggiero said. "So we don't know who to talk to. They basically leave their things here every Friday, and pick it up and leave."

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