Campus & Community

Fresh, local, and in your back Yard

5 min read

Farmers’ markets open up for the season in Cambridge and Allston

One of the many months of New England farm abundance, June gives us fresh beets, cabbage, collards, kale, greens, radishes, and rhubarb.

June also gives us the start of Harvard’s two weekly farmers’ markets, open for the season through October.

Organizers promise a celebration of fresh, regional goods from a medley of vendors: bakers, beekeepers, chocolatiers, cheese makers, and local farmers.

The regional farmers, none farther than 50 miles from Harvard Yard, provide the poem of produce that marks every month of the growing season: the snap peas of June, the peaches of July, the corn of August, the peppers, pears, and pumpkins of September — and more.

Last year the Cambridge market (which opened in 2006) doubled in size. “It gets bigger every year,” said Theresa McCulla ’04, administrator of the Food Literacy Project at Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS).

Farmers’ markets illustrate “very explicitly” what food literacy means, she said: “a constant mindfulness” about what we eat.

McCulla, a onetime Romance languages concentrator, gave up a job as a media analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency to pursue her true passion in life: good food — and the nutrition it offers, the beauty it possesses, and the community it engenders.

She and other experts see farmers’ markets as a way of getting the freshest food, learning how to prepare it, and meeting the people who grow it.

And at markets like this, said McCulla, the money you spend goes directly to producers. (For food sold in a supermarket, farmers get only about 17 cents of every dollar.)

Then there’s sustainability: the practice of living within our means, environmentally speaking.

“Food is a gateway issue for sustainability,” said Heather Henriksen, director of Harvard’s Office for Sustainability. “Everyone eats.”

Farmers’ markets are sustainable in many ways, she said. “They bring communities together, create jobs, provide educational opportunities, and open access to healthy foods.”

Farmers’ markets provide local and in-season food that minimizes transportation from farm to table, said Henriksen. (By one estimate, a typical carrot travels more than 1,800 miles to reach the dinner table.)

“The farmers pick the produce the morning it’s sold,” said McCulla of the Harvard markets. “It’s important for shoppers to know it’s so fresh and so close.”

Farmers’ markets are also classrooms of a sort. Shoppers can pick up cooking tips, sample regional foods they may never have heard of, and learn the value of freshness.

Last year, McCulla — who directs the market near Harvard Yard — saw a shopper walk by, eating from a pint of Concord grapes. He asked his friend, “Have you tasted these grapes? They’re not normal grapes.”

“I love overhearing things like that,” she said.

“A farmers’ market is actually a chance to see what’s happening seasonally,” said Crista Martin, HUDS director of marketing and communications. “It’s such a different experience to get a bean when it’s available — fresh that day.”

The markets are a culinary history lesson too, she said. “It gives me an appreciation of what it must have been like to eat in New England” before the advent of supermarkets.

Martin, who grew up on a family farm in Delaware, is astonished all over again every year at the variety — sometimes the oddity — of regional foods at the markets — like bright orange squash blossoms, and long beans from a Hmong farmer who grows Asian vegetables and herbs.

Then there are “tomatoes of every color,” said Martin: purple, green, and variegated reds. “They’re beautiful.”

In season, there are maxixe, said McCulla — cucumberlike vegetables that look like spiky green pine cones. And don’t forget the fresh local breads, dessert sauces, jams, pies, pastries, artisan honeys, and regional chocolates.

“All these new taste experiences make everything worth it,” said Martin. “It’s fun to be at the market and see people unable to resist eating what they just bought.”

Both markets will accept Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) food stamps, Women, Infant & Children (WIC) vouchers, and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) coupons.

Vendors at the Allston market will also accept Boston Bounty Bucks, which in Boston double the value of food stamps for purchases of between $1 and $10.

New this year at the Cambridge market is Cape Ann Fresh Catch, a community-supported fishery. Buy a share or a half-share and you get part of the weekly catch from the seas off Gloucester, Mass. — hake, dabs, grey sole, flounder, cod – “whatever’s abundant,” said McCulla, “super-fresh and never frozen.”

The farmers’ markets will reach beyond food. During a June 26 kick-off celebration at the Allston market, landscaping experts from Harvard’s Facilities Maintenance Operations will offer tips on home-scale organic composting, modeled on efforts already under way at the University.

The Office for Sustainability will have a display set up too. It will have top-10 tips on sustainable living, lessons in low-impact transportation and energy usage, and activities like a water tasting, a recycling game, and more.

Other special events will take place in Allston through the season.

In the market near Harvard Yard, local chefs will offer weekly food demonstrations, using ingredients from vendors at tents and tables nearby. (On June 16, the guest chef will be Jody Adams of the Rialto Restaurant in Cambridge.)

Farmers’ markets also give shoppers a refreshed sense of community, said Martin. “It’s one of those times you get the best-of-the-neighborhood feeling.”

And it gives shoppers a glimpse of a largely hidden world: artisan shops, corner bakeries, and — most of all — local farms.

“We do lose track, riding on the T every day,” said Martin. “These guys are operating just beyond the edge of town.”