As someone who has been engaged in local food and farmers markets for the past five-plus years, I was disheartened to see the Riverfront Times awarding Soulard Market the title of the city’s “Best Farmers Market” again. Full disclosure: I manage the Schlafly Farmers Market, worked at the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market (TGFM) the past five seasons and briefly worked at Soulard this past spring. The fact that the only specific food items you mention in your blurb are bloody marys and flavored pork rinds speaks volumes. Hardly what one thinks of when one thinks of a farmers market
I’m not at all surprised that the RFT readers voted it the best, because the effects of 150 years of history in the community are hard to overcome. But the RFT food writers should know better. They should know that the vast majority of the vendors at Soulard Market are produce resellers, meaning they go buy produce wholesale at Produce Row and sell it at Soulard. And very often those products are at the end of their shelf life, meaning they are cheap yes, but of dubious nutritional value.
In fact, less than 10 percent of the booths at Soulard Market are run by actual farmers. And, of those farmers, many of them also resell products they don’t grow in order to supplement their sales. Some of these products may come from local farms or produce auctions, but good luck figuring out which is which. If you want to know that, you’ll have to go to one of the producer-only markets in the region like Alton, Cherokee Street, Clayton, Edwardsville, Ferguson, North City, Schlafly in Maplewood, Tower Grove, Webster Groves, Wildwood, etc., where the vendors are open to questions about where their products come from and how they are produced.
These markets are part of a growing local food movement that has passed Soulard Market by, and they are engines of economic development. TGFM alone has helped a handful of brick-and-mortar food businesses like Salume Beddu and Southwest Diner get their start, creating jobs across the area.
Soulard Market itself could be a great asset to the city, but it seems representative of a lot of issues with our city - entrenched political players, lack of vision and inconsistent enforcement of regulations. Vendors whose families have been there decades have more control over the facility than the city, which currently owns and manages the market. In fact, those vendors basically vetoed the 1999 Master Plan to upgrade the facility because they so feared change. They left millions of dollars of committed money from the Danforth Foundation (who paid for the Master Plan) on the table.
Compare this with a similar market in Kansas City, the City Market. In the late 90s, it was very much like Soulard Market, complete with vendors selling sunglasses and fake handbags. Kansas City also had a Master Plan in the late 90s, but they had the political will to change their market. That market now features 100-plus regional farmers every Saturday and attracts upwards of 700,000 visitors each year, and has 40 permanent shops allowing it to be open seven days a week. If you’ve ever been to Soulard on any day but Saturday, you know why that’s better than what we’ve got in our city.
Personally, I would prefer that any market where the majority of the vendors are not farmers not be called a farmers market. But the USDA and the Missouri Dept. of Agriculture have yet to come up with any limitations on what type of organization can be called a farmers market. This may change in the future. If it does, will we still be voting Soulard Market the best “farmers market” when it so obviously doesn’t qualify as one?