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Interview with: RICHARD McCARTHY

richard mccarthy

Last month, during an OA trip to New Orleans, we met up with Richard McCarthy at the downtown Crescent City Farmers Market. Amid the stalls offering local goodies—from Ponchatoula strawberries to Gulf shrimp to goat cheese—we chatted with McCarthy about his work as executive director of Market Umbrella, a nonprofit whose mission is to “cultivate the field of public markets for public good.” The CCFM, co-founded by McCarthy in 1995, is the seedling out of which Market Umbrella grew. In addition to managing three weekly markets across the city, the organization now offers educational programs to raise community awareness about farmers markets and healthy foods; assists Gulf shrimpers and fishers to distribute their products locally and nationally; and consults with farmers markets across the country, advising them on how to grow and thrive. McCarthy’s belief in the community-building power of public markets was reinforced throughout our conversation, as he exchanged greetings, handshakes, and hugs with a steady stream of market-goers.  


THE OXFORD AMERICAN: In the fifteen years since you co-founded the Crescent City Farmers Market, what is the biggest change you’ve witnessed? 

RICHARD MCCARTHY: I’d have to say, shopper knowledge. In September 1995, when we first opened, eager shoppers came in search of local fruits and vegetables and then voiced their frustration: “Where’s the broccoli?” Never mind that the season for broccoli and cauliflower was weeks and weeks away. There has been a widespread improvement in food literacy in our region and beyond—especially during the past decade.

Our particular belief in farmers’ markets is the promise for these ancient mechanisms (when purposefully reinvented) to serve as platforms for experiential learning. Farmers and fishers learn about the consumer trends; shoppers learn about food sources and seasons. And ultimately, everyone learns about each other. Food is a discussion starter that takes us all into unknown territory about one another’s lives. For us, fifteen years into this work, we have grown more knowledgeable not only about food but about one another’s lives, dreams, and struggles.

THE OA: Describe the experience of reopening CCFM in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. 

RM: On the Saturday before the Hurricane devastated our city and region, we held our last market. At this point, we were running four markets per week in four different New Orleans neighborhoods. Many attended that sticky Saturday morning market in search of insight as much as for food. All of us turned to the fishermen and their wives in hopes that they could quantify the potential storm threat. After all, we had come to value their traditional knowledge. Little did we know that their anxiety for the approaching storm was for good reason. 

For the first time ever, I evacuated with my family first to Baton Rouge, then to Houston. We lived there for four months, as our daughter’s school in New Orleans did not reopen until January of 2006. Meanwhile, this did not prevent us from reassembling our community of food producers, consumers, and chefs. Please remember, back in September 2005, the rumor mill was so awash with stories that the toxic stew would prevent seafood from being harvested for years to come; that the city would be uninhabitable for at least two years; and that with the infrastructure collapse, water quality and electricity systems would have to be built anew. Despite these stories, we carried forth with the promise that the reopening of our farmers market would, in a small way, send a signal to residents back home, as well as residents unable to return, that normalcy would again return to our lives.

First, we deputized a small team of farmers, fishers, and shoppers (among them, notable culinary activist Poppy Tooker) to find our community. We searched for them online with a digital bulletin board (on which we surveyed where and when we might we reopen the Market). Our “deputies” also visited farmers on their land and fishing families in temporary housing to survey their needs and to ascertain what—if any—resources had reached them. We, in turn, shared this information with private philanthropic organizations and the USDA. From there, we turned our attention to reopening one of our weekly markets. Much of our staff was still in exile; deputy director Darlene Wolnik moved back to the city five weeks after the storm to launch our return on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. It was an emotional day. While produce was somewhat scant (not surprisingly), vendors showed up even if they had nothing to sell. Everyone was in search of human contact. We have done our best to capture this intense experience on our YouTube channel:

THE OA: What qualities (including farmers, consumers, etc.) make the Crescent City Farmers Market special or unique as compared to other markets?  

RM: From a standpoint of product supply and diversity, by no means is our market the biggest or the best. I marvel at the many markets I visit near and far and how they reflect the health of each region’s food system and the desire to protect cultural and culinary traditions. The number of farmers has increased over the years as has the variety of traditional (almost forgotten) products, like Creole cream cheese, in addition to newly discovered ones. One manner in which the Crescent City Farmers Market stands apart is its sense of community. Whether this is due to the almost-innate ability of New Orleanians to effortlessly inhabit public spaces or our commitment to maintaining a farmers market community in which consumers join hands with producers to reclaim a stake in the food-distribution system together, ours is a warm and friendly market. People talk to one another, be they old friends or newly acquainted on the blacktop. We notice people sitting and talking, hugging and kissing. This speaks to the comfort people have grown to feel with one another around a shared love of food. Forever striving for a sense of balance between the interests of suppliers, consumers, and the neighborhoods that host us year-round, one ingredient that may make our markets particularly friendly is their scale. With no single location offering more than forty vendors, the CCFM is not an overwhelming, in-your-face public space. Rather, it’s a town square.

THE OA: Do farmers markets impact their communities in ways that consumers might not realize? 

RM: The question of market impact is where we have invested much of our energy, especially over the past decade. Integral to our belief that public markets can serve as strategic levers for social change is that to use them you need not change your idea about the world upon entering the market. There is no admission. There is no ideological litmus test, other than, when on-site, everyone treats one another with dignity and mutual respect. In fact, this is largely what our job—as market managers—is: to create an environment where this social contract is maintained. Both vendor and shopper should feel welcome, regardless of their beliefs. This social contract is perhaps as valuable—if not more so—to a community as the exchange of food. 

Consider our nation’s mostly unwelcoming reception to new immigrants. For many established U.S. citizens, it is the market where they first encounter immigrants (as vendors, for instance) contributing to the economy with their cultural assets intact. At the human-scaled market, where farmers and fishers physically stand behind the fruits of their labor (as they hawk the products on their tables), we learn to value the traditional knowledge that immigrants possess. They bear these gifts as if intending to bring flavor and authenticity to a nation deprived of real places, raised in franchise restaurants, and socially awkward around people unlike themselves. This may be the lasting, hidden asset of markets—to build trust among different kinds of people: between urban and rural, immigrant and Anglo, old and young, black and white, and so forth.

We are the first to admit that farmers markets get something of a bad rap for being smugly affluent; however, I encourage you to visit a farmers market this summer. Many are learning how to overcome the digital divide that, for the past fifteen years, prevented markets from accepting Food Stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). Others are growing new farmers among farm laborers eager for access to land of their own. In 2008, we conducted a social-capital audit of the farmers markets in South Central Los Angeles. We found that they served as primary food access and violence-preventing institutions to residents whose socioeconomic status throws them more barriers than bounty. 

THE OA: What is the hardest part of your job? The most enjoyable? 

RM: The hardest part is the weather. Despite coming from a long line of amateur meteorologists, I’ve come to the conclusion that the variables continue to multiply, thus making our lives, the farmers’ lives, the fishers’ lives plain miserable. Every market manager will describe the stress of hoping for warmth, dodging the rain, the snow, the drought, etc., etc. While we—in our role as conveners—find it stressful, it also gives us greater appreciation for the incredibly uncertain position those who harvest the food encounter. It’s high risk, whether you’re planting, harvesting, or selling the product. Then again, that’s also what we like. For so much in our lives, we insulate ourselves from the immediacy of it all. Fuel subsidies and foreign policies obscure the real costs of food—maintaining ridiculously expensive and centralizing global chains for fruits, flowers, etc. At the market, we get to enjoy and suffer through the immediate impacts that make up a local food system. When heavy rains obliterate a crop, we watch the innovators (who somehow dodged the flooding) enjoy increased demand and, at times, increased prices. Or, for instance, right now we feel the immediate impact of industrial disasters upon our food system. The BP oil-rig explosion potentially threatens commercial fishing livelihoods in coastal Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and…who knows? At Market, we observe consumers scurrying for the last of the spring shrimp. Or will it be the last? Again, immediate impact.

On a more optimistic front, we particularly enjoy the immediate impact of learning and leadership development we help to facilitate. There’s nothing like watching a farmer who takes the risk of planting an early crop, an unusual crop, or a late crop become rewarded for that innovation. Or even better, the learning that comes when your competitor in the next booth succeeds in so doing. Knowledge is contagious. 

THE OA: Some shoppers assume that a farmers market will be more expensive than a large, chain grocery store. What would you say to these shoppers?  

RM: It unfortunately is the case that farmers markets are perceived to be more expensive. At one level, indeed, this is a recognition among consumers that the quality (and therefore price) of goods will be more expensive at farmers’ markets. However, more and more, we notice a growing retail sophistication among vendors at farmers markets that yields an ever widening of prices and varieties of goods on sale. At the Crescent City Farmers Market, we compare prices on a monthly basis between our vendors and grocery stores. We find the following: A) It is often difficult to compare the two as they offer different products—green garlic, for instance, is only available at the Market; B) The price for raw fruits, seafood, and vegetables are competitive, and at the height of season, farmers markets are far cheaper (reflecting an increase in local supply—how often shoppers who preserve tomatoes or strawberries pick up flats and cases for canning at ridiculously low prices!); C) Value-added products at Market may be more expensive, reflecting the added costs involved with small-batch production of, say, juices or pasta.

In our Market, as is the norm across the U.S., we do not intervene in pricing. Each vendor sets his/her own prices. If we detect any sort of price collusion, we step in (to allow free choice to reign). Over the years, as new and more vendors join the experiment and as the original ones learn how to do retail, we have observed how prices at farmers markets have improved. Meanwhile, we have also observed how large and well-branded grocery chains are training consumers to pay more and more—for less. 

Lastly, when it comes to value, I always turn to restaurant chefs for guidance. After all, they live and die on the spread of food costs. One chef taught us very early on to think about food costs in another way: He described how, when he purchased tomatoes at the Market directly from the farmer, he threw away 30% less product due to spoilage than when he purchased his tomatoes from conventional sources. “This,” he remarked, “amounts to a 30% discount on the back-end costs of produce procured at the Market.” 

THE OA: How do you promote awareness of the market among poorer areas of the city? 

RM: Despite the footprint limitations of our thrice-weekly markets upon the three distinct neighborhoods in which we operate, each location is situated on a public-transport route. With that said, we fully recognize that we are only serving a small percentage of the population. In order to reach out to shoppers who may reside in neighborhoods that are becoming known as “food deserts,” we have launched a series of community-outreach programs designed to meet shoppers halfway: MarketMatch. Through our 2009 MarketMatch pilot, the Crescent City Farmers Market matched up to $25 in market goods purchased with government benefits. Therefore, a low-income shopper could spend $25 worth of food-stamp funds and, with MarketMatch, purchase $50 worth of groceries. During a four-month period, the Market’s SNAP redemptions increased 600%, and remain far above pre-Match levels. For more information, download our three-page analysis of the pilot:

When I think back to 1995, when we had hoped to develop six markets in two years, I am reminded of how our choice of neighborhoods was narrowed by the USDA decision in 1996 to move from paper Food Stamps to Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT, which works like a debit card). This policy forced us to place explicitly low-income neighborhoods on our back burner because we did not have the technology to accept EBT funds at Market. In the early 1990s, Food Stamp consumers spent over $6 million at farmers markets. These numbers fell to nearly zero by the late 1990s, due in large part to the EBT system transfer, and are only beginning to rebound. In 2005, we finally found the means to accept EBT/SNAP at CCFM with the acquisition of a wireless device, an agreeable Food and Nutrition Service office at the state level, and research help from an Emerson Hunger Fellow. That year, our efforts were cut short by Hurricane Katrina; however, our strategies remained the same: Reach out to vulnerable children and families and help them to grow comfortable shopping at the Market.

In order to lure seniors into our Market family, we have SeniorMatch. Our community-organizing team leads selected (primarily low-income) senior centers in our specially designed nutrition education game: Farmers Market Bingo. Through fun and interactive activities, seniors learn what products may be purchased with which currencies. In Bingo, special attention is drawn to senior-friendly foods available at the Market. Winners receive canned okra and the like. The centers then schedule a Meet Me at the Market—an orchestrated bus trip to the Market to spend their government vouchers plus our matching funds. 

We also run a match with the federal Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, in which the front-loading condition is for recipients to attend nutrition education classes (usually one of our friendly chefs conducting a delicious cooking demonstration at the WIC clinic).

At this stage, a small but rapidly growing number of the 5,000+ farmers markets in the U.S. are acquiring the wireless devices that accept plastic currencies—be it credit, debit or benefit. Many, like us, are also designing market incentive programs that send a warm welcome to low-income shoppers to markets. The Wholesome Wave Foundation has provided grants to markets in nearly all corners of the US to launch incentive programs like our MarketMatch program.

THE OA: Where do the vendors at the Crescent City Farmers Market come from? How do you establish relationships with them? 

RM: On average, our vendors travel sixty miles to New Orleans. Most come from Southeast Louisiana and Southern Mississippi. A smattering come from Northern Mississippi and Alabama. Most food-mile conversations result in drawing a circle around the point of consumption or sale (like the Market or town). Ours around New Orleans would be largely wet—reaching deep into the Gulf of Mexico and perhaps even beyond where the gargantuan BP oil rig exploded, sank, and has since sent a spew of oil our way. I mention this only to point to the significant role of seafood—the plant and animal life that plays a major role in our foodshed. As a result, our food region is shaped less like a circle as it creeps along the Gulf Coast. From day one, urban growers have played a major role in reimagining our food system. Additionally, urban bakers and pasta and pesto makers may all come from within the city.

THE OA: Explain the relationship between farmers markets and community traditions. 

RM: There is a marvelous tension within the CCFM between entrepreneurial innovation and cultural preservation. I see this elsewhere at other markets—especially as you witness the welcoming waves of new immigrants who arrive with new traditions; however, in New Orleans, the culinary traditions remain very much intact. The rhythm of our lives is dictated by what anthropologist David Beriss describes as akin to the canon of works each and every self-respecting chef or home cook must first learn. These include reds beans and rice on Mondays, gumbo on Fridays, etc. Indeed, some of this may reach level of caricature but these are truths most New Orleans diners hold to be self-evident. What is this relationship to an established canon? Is it an innate conservatism? Or is there another dynamic? While much of the American experience is fixated upon the values of nomadic commercial life, New Orleans is fixated with the static and predictable markers of time and place. As in Europe, where both financial pressures and family obligation keep generations together, New Orleans functions as a well-oiled self-preservation machine. Sure, the forces of homogenization do their best to erase the fine grain of New Orleans culinary history, but families and communities strike predictably to keep these traditions alive. Consider the St. Joseph’s altars and the interplay between immigrant history, Catholicism, and food.

So, where does the Market fit in? On the front lines, offering a ritual that reinforces seasonal and culinary traditions, we remind shoppers of the time and location of their lives. If it’s November, then look for satsumas and mirlitons. If it’s Lent, then rediscover the Catholic season as a culinary adventure. By bringing cultural foods off the banquet table and onto the dining-room table of everyday lives, we try to reinvent these traditions as emblems of the everyday. Among these, gumbo des herbes was once a major feature of the meat-free stretch of Lent (after Mardi Gras). I grew up in New Orleans. I never heard of it, but by the mid-1990s, more and more food activists, chefs, and shoppers began to discuss this and other disappearing culinary relics. At our Saturday Market, chef Richard Stewart of the Gumbo Shop prepared his interpretation of this Lenten classic (including smoked shiitake mushrooms). Fast-forward fifteen years and notice the presence of gumbo des herbes on a number of menus and on the tips of Market shoppers’ tongues. Culture is living. We do our best to keep it alive via commerce and the public sharing of knowledge.

THE OA: You travel a great deal for Market Umbrella, researching markets in the U.S. and abroad. What are some exciting models or developments that you’ve seen lately? 

RM: For me, it’s always a busman’s holiday. I visit markets wherever I go: for work or for play. Among the more intriguing trends we’re trying to document is the rise of markets that resemble the ones we run in the U.S. Led by civil society, these often-smaller markets are emerging in places all over the world: Japan, Brazil, Italy, South Africa. Still, the wild, organic, traditional markets (for example, Denpasar’s Night Market in Indonesia) leave me speechless. It’s been nearly a decade since I visited Indonesia, and I still have vivid memories of machetes and gigantic frozen tuna being transported on the backs of motorscooters in the humid air at midnight. While these traditional markets inspire me with a boundless authenticity, it is the new breed of mission-driven markets that speaks to a genuinely global movement of communities creatively, and often quietly, retaking control of the local assets integral to a local food system. 

THE OA: Tell us about Market Umbrella’s efforts to promote the Gulf's local seafood [shrimping and fishing] industry. 

Whether it’s the pressures of over-fishing (due to global competition from industrial imports) or a lack of allies that come from generations of isolation, we worry greatly about the future of the fishing families along the Gulf Coast. They are always living on the edge—beyond the reach of conventional capital or access to knowledge about new consumer trends—and we value their hard work and traditional knowledge of the fishing families in our region. Their geographical isolation and insulation from potential allies has contributed to their endangerment—thanks to a complex system of harvesting and selling to the dock, which, in turn, sells to processors and distributors. They joined our CCFM in 2000—five years after we established the Market. We had to overcome Health Department concerns and learn how to communicate with this culturally varied and, at times, stridently independent industry. With the infrastructure collapse that came with the 2005 hurricane season, we helped those who were ready with product to sell but nowhere to sell it beneath the banner of the White Boot Brigade. After Katrina, the public was led to believe that the shrimp, crabs, and oysters were contaminated in a toxic stew. As this was not the case, we struck out into foreign parts and in search of culinary allies—New York and San Francisco chefs who would place Louisiana’s unique brackish-water shrimp on their menus. These campaigns of shrimpers selling products so fresh that there was not enough time for them to remove their iconic footwear—the white boots—led to lasting relationships between fishermen in the process of formalizing and trading on their innovations and chefs keen to add value to their menus. We produced several short films about our travails

THE OA: In light of last week’s oil-rig explosion, what is Market Umbrella doing to assist shrimpers and fisherman whose jobs have been put on hold by the spill?

RM: We are very much in a wait-and-see mode as we (along with everyone else) watch the disaster unfold. Among the fishing families with whom we work, they describe the anxiety and frustrations they feel as we await a disaster that will either be really bad or tragic. This is a reminder of so many bad policy decisions that make up our everyday lives—a dependence upon fossil fuels, the lack of safety regulations in our economic development strategies, and the general sense that the planet is ours to consume. While we await more information, do our best not to get swept up into the alarm that dominates the culture of disaster—something we’re familiar with in the Gulf Coast—we recognize the delicate balancing act we are beholden to maintain. As of May 2, 2010, 77% of the Louisiana fishers’ coastline is open for business. Fishers are fishing, trying to harvest what they can before the areas are closed. Indeed, the shrimp look gorgeous at this stage. When the news hit, one of our fishers, Kay Brandhurst, sold 350 pounds of shrimp in one hour. Indeed, seafood lovers are worried that the end is nigh. We shall see. In the meantime, fishers are putting themselves and their boats on the line to contribute to preventative measures (to keep the oil away from the fragile coast, where much of the wildlife spawn). Remembering that we are public point of sale, a place for the valuable transfer of knowledge, perhaps our most valuable role is for us to provide the fishermen and women to speak for themselves, to answer the tough questions, and be visible at the center of the Market. Will the White Boot Brigade march again into new markets, to reinforce the safety and quality of Louisiana shrimp? We don’t know just yet. Mostly, we are deeply concerned for the livelihoods, and the ecosystem, the plants and animals who inhabit coastal Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and …? 

THE OA: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start a market in his/her community? 

RM: Try to think of every reason why you shouldn’t start a market. Survey your community. Is there one already? If so, can you work with them? If not, why not? Is the community large enough to sustain one? It may be that despite the explosive growth of markets, maybe not every community has the size to support one. While demand for products seems to be growing, nearly every market I visit describes a familiar refrain: There aren’t enough farmers. This gets to the issue we think of as central in running markets: Strive for balance between competing interests—between the vendors and the shoppers, and between the neighborhood that hosts a market and the market visitors. It’s hard and often thankless work, but it also provides immediate feedback, continual learning, and proximity to truly incredible people. You can’t do it alone, nor should you. Assemble a balanced team of enthusiasts to serve as advisors and hopefully, ultimately, as board members. We’ve published a great many easy-to-read online documents on the subject of starting or expanding a market, under the heading of “Marketshare.” 

THE OA: What will the Crescent City Farmers’ Market look like five years from now? What do you think Americans will be eating five to ten years from now? 

RM: While we may be far from our original dream of reinventing the municipal tradition of a market in every neighborhood—there were thirty-two public markets [in New Orleans] at the system’s peak—I hope our reach to consumers affects every neighborhood. While I’d be irresponsible to suggest the scale of operation five years from now, one thing I can safely say is that we’ll remain true to our mission—that to sell it [at CCFM], you must grow, harvest, or make the food product. Since Katrina, we’ve missed the regular presence of Louisiana oysters. I hope we’ve solved this infrastructure issue.

Today, I look around the Market and marvel at how few of the shoppers I recognize. Who are these new consumers, these new food-system rank-and-file activists? People are waking up to the concerns about the food we eat, who harvested it and under what social and economic conditions, and so forth. Ten years from now, today’s exotic gourmet vegetable—be it fiddlehead fern or the like—will be served in school lunches. Well, I try to remain hopeful. 

THE OA: As a native New Orleanian, do you have any strong food-related memories of the city from your childhood/adolescence? 

RM: Though I grew up in New Orleans, my mother is a native Londoner. It was not until much later in life that I realized how I was unlike many of my friends growing up, in that I did not come from a household in which mother’s unique technique for making a roux was passed from generation to generation. In fact, it was shortbread and the proper pot of tea that defined my early adventures in the kitchen.

And yet, my most vivid food memory of New Orleans certainly came at age three or four with my New Orleans grandmother. Aware that I had already developed a fondness for raw oysters, she took me to Uglesich’s in Central City. We sat up at the oyster bar, and she ordered a dozen oysters for me. I ate them and wanted more. We ordered another dozen. I ate them and wanted more. At this point, the men at the bar offered to buy for me my next dozen. I ate them and wanted more. I think back to this intergenerational celebration of local food traditions, especially as now I’m in my thirtieth year as a vegetarian. While I don’t miss oysters, I treasure the memory.

THE OA: Describe an ideal summer meal sourced from the Crescent City Farmers Market.

RM: My family and I are known as the “blueberry mafia,” because we consume vast amounts of blueberries. I can’t think of summer without blueberries still warm from the sun of the Market. With that said, my favorite summer surprise—and one you can only find in your own garden or at the Market—is squash blossoms. The blossoms are too fragile to travel far, and many farmers learn by happenstance that they can often make more money selling the flowers than the fruit. I love to stuff them with fresh chevre, then pan-fry them in olive oil with shredded basil, salt, and pepper to taste. I can’t cook them quickly enough for my twelve-year-old daughter.


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