This summer I was fortunate enough to live between 15th and 16th street on Union Square West. While most cab drivers will insist that this address does not exist, any fresh produce-loving New Yorker will absolutely rave over such an ideal location. Why? Because, four days a week, this address is home to the world famous Union Square Greenmarket. Dating back to 1976 when it began with only a few farmers, it has since grown exponentially to now holding 140 regional farmers, fisherman, and bakers in peak season. Loyal customers return every week to enjoy fresh and locally made products from just-picked fruits and vegetables, to heritage meats and award-winning farmstead cheeses, artisan breads, jams, pickles, and much more.
As perfect as it sounds, I couldn’t help but feel discouraged. Even though I have a huge passion for fresh food and cooking, I’ve always heard that farmer’s markets are so overpriced, and sadly my student budget can’t fully afford my passion. Right now “affordability” is my top priority when it comes to grocery shopping. And while I hope one day “locally-grown and produced” will be my only standard, at the moment, it’s unfortunately just not my biggest concern. In addition to the price issue, I also had no idea how to navigate the market, let alone know what to buy. Everyone at the market seemed to have figured it out long ago. I was embarrassed to be the new-kid-on-the-block who didn’t have a clue about anything.
I needed a push. I needed a little confidence. And more than anything I needed knowledge before tackling this green monster of a market. And knowledge is just what I got.
My friend Jen, who knew I was eager to explore and try something new, led me to Skillshare.com. The site is “a marketplace to take and teach classes…powered by a community of teachers and students driven by a passion to share real-world skills through collaborative learning.” Trust me, it’s as cool as it sounds and it has something for everyone. Whether you’re looking for a cooking class or a class on learning the basics of Photoshop, you’ll find something.
And tada! I found a class quite appropriately titled “Shop Like a Pro at a Farmer’s Market.” It seemed too good to be true so I took it as a sign and signed up immediately.
The following Saturday morning I arrived at 10am to the Brooklyn Borough Hall Greenmarket. I met the teacher, Jay, and the two other students. We began by discussing what we wanted to achieve out of the class. We generally had the same goals: to learn the basics on how to buy produce, how to know what’s in season, and if it’s worth it to buy at the market versus an average grocery store. Jay answered all these questions and more within the two-hour class.
He shared his background in local food and told us that after two hours he could convince us that a farmer’s market is the most fun and affordable way to grocery shop. Sold! I was eager to learn more. He then took us on a complete tour of the market, stopping at many of the vendors to explain various aspects about the produce and answer our questions…
After two hours I had a completely new perspective, and I now understood exactly how to navigate the market. I learned that basil bought at the market, if handled properly, could last up to a year. I now know how to pick out a fresh zucchini, tomato, stone fruit, melon, kale, and so much more. Did you know shallots are cheapest at a farmer’s market? Or that berries freeze extremely well? Another good tip, says Jay, is to always buy your eggs at the market. And he’s right — the difference is that noticeable and that good.
But the most important thing I brought away from the class is how affordable and enjoyable the farmer’s market is. Jay himself goes to the market almost every week and brings $60 and never spends more. He starts with his necessities: eggs, milk, and butter. Then buys his meats, bunches of greens, fresh vegetables and fruits and he is set for a week or two. And while he’s saving money, he also knows exactly where his money is going — directly to the farmers, which makes him feel much better about his purchases.
The moral of the story is: Do not let the farmer’s market intimidate you! Even if you are a student on a budget, the market could be the most affordable choice, and not to mention the freshest and best tasting. Still a little hesitant? If you’re in New York, try stopping by the Greenmarket Education Station, which can be found at every New York Greenmarket. There is always someone there to answer your questions and let you know what’s fresh at the market that day. And don’t be afraid to ask the farmers themselves! They know the produce best and are generally eager to answer all your questions.
Best of luck in all your future farmer’s market ventures!
Julie Mirliss is a rising Junior at the Univeristy of Michigan-Ann Arbor pursuing a B.A. in Sociology and a minor in Global Media Studies. She is the advocacy chair of UM’s Challah for Hunger chapter, and just finished being a summer Program Intern at Hazon. Julie enjoys getting students to give back to their community, and working to create healthier and more sustainable Jewish communities—and beyond!