Three green-roofed sheds compose the market, enclosed by traffic-halted cars and the light rail. Blooming bouquets and swelling music greet visitors. A bicyclist leads market guests, bags heavy with groceries, in his yellow rickshaw. The children of vendors sit, groggy-eyed. People bargain, ask questions about preparing meals and exchange smiles. Young customers clutch coffee. Sharp-toothed succulents paint the scene in emerald green. Refrigerated meats, cucumbers, tomatoes, regular and baby potatoes, bell peppers, green beans; samplers holding toothpicks with many-flavored cheeses; Hmong vendors selling sparkly toys, story blankets and purses; a long line for steamed buns — all add to the atmosphere of this communal gathering.
In 1852, the Minnesota Pioneer published an article requesting the creation of a formal market in St. Paul. Vetal Guerin, an early settler, viewed this demand as an opportunity, so he started the town’s first market house. Soon, Guerin handed over the operating rights: the lease was signed in May 1854, and the city embarked on the market’s supervision in June.
That was 168 years ago, and today the St. Paul Farmers’ Market (SPFM) now has 18 locations dispersed across the Twin City Metro (Minneapolis-St. Paul) area, the heart of which lies in downtown St. Paul. As of 2022, the SPFM had 148 vendors.
Kim Guenther, communications director of the Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association (MFMA), said that the SPFM is “a year-round market ” — the oldest in the state — citing its ability to maintain operations during the winter months, with ample vendors who sell meats, cheeses and Christmas crafts.
But farmers’ markets across the nation have also sparked conversations among academics and food justice advocates surrounding issues of inaccessibility — particularly the price point of most markets.
Higher prices accompany food sold retail because vendors must pay for “stall fees, possible certifications, tents, signs, and, most importantly, the time to be there,” Guenther said in a follow-up email. Farmers sell directly to the customer, and these finances are factored into a retail price and would not be present in wholesale, in which case the recipients include school systems, restaurants and grocery stores — all bulk buyers.
To help offset higher prices, the MFMA is collaborating with advocates for food access to encourage more markets to embrace programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In St. Paul, six of the 18 farmers’ market locations are able to process EBT cards, aiding low-income Minnesotans who “get to stretch their dollar further,” Guenther said.
Since 2015, Hunger Solutions Minnesota has administered Market Bucks; the matching program makes it so that SNAP participants can spend up to $10 in EBT, and receive an additional $20 in market spending.
“It’s a win-win-win for Minnesotans,” she said, as the program benefits shoppers, vendors and small and mid-sized farms.
While the makeup of Minnesota vendors has diversified over time, Guenther said, the customer base is mostly white — a statistic that the MFMA hopes to improve in order to build “a safe and [accepting] place for everyone.”
To better determine how shifting demographics have affected the fabric of markets, like the ones in St. Paul, the MFMA is working with the University of Minnesota. FM360, the Farmers’ Market Metrics Project, hopes to quantify impacts, Guenther said.
In addition, the Association sponsors the Emerging Farmers’ Conference, an educational opportunity for new, immigrant and BIPOC farmers in Minnesota. The MFMA knows that “having access to land … can be difficult,” Guenther said, and that there are increased barriers for individuals of these groups. The Farmers’ Market Coalition has put together an anti-racist toolkit, developed by Black leaders in food systems, for markets nationwide; the MFMA is using this framework as a guide.
But accessibility issues certainly aren’t new. As the MFMA works to mitigate ongoing struggles to improve the farmers’ market model for all St. Paulites, Rachel Slocum, a professor of geography and urban studies at Portland State University, has been researching food systems in the Twin Cities since the early 2000s.
“Wholesale markets (how the MFM started) did exist for a long time, and then a change of the law in the 1970s allowed farmers to direct market their goods to people. In the 1990s, the food movement saw direct marketing as a way to help struggling small to mid-sized farms,” Slocum said in a follow-up email to an interview.
Since then, Slocum noted, the number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. has increased dramatically, especially as the rise of the “alternative food” movement has encouraged ideas of improved nutrition and local, sustainable farming, according to Patricia Allen’s 2004 book, “Together at the Table: Sustainability and Sustenance in the American Agrifood System.”
But Slocum said that these ideas about food can reinforce ideologistic barriers currently perpetuating citywide inequities, such as the idea that everyone should (and can) eat a certain way “to make their body healthier” and to take care of the food system at large — and that if they don’t, “they don’t care.”
“[The goal is] to build vibrant local and regional economies as well as to enable smaller-scale, sustainable farming to persist. The question is whether farmers’ markets are the way to do this — as well as what the markets enable and reproduce,” she said in an email.
Slocum said modern-day farmers’ markets play on the nostalgia of how agriculture used to be, but that there is a danger in “looking to the past for how to do things now.”
“[One] is thinking of a time when everything was great, because we had farming communities [and] people made and bought stuff in their local area and they supported an economy. There wasn’t a globalized food system,” she said.
To the question of what is to be done — how do we create more just food systems? — Dr. Slocum advocates better storytelling and critical thinking about the “spaces that we become attached to,” such as farmers’ markets; people must be more conscious of their surroundings, she said.
The most important prerequisite of an ethical food system, she wrote, is collective well-being, which includes holistic improvements in areas like public transit, health care and child care. She also noted the importance of “more generous public provisioning of food,” like food stamps and school programs, as well as, “in the present moment, price controls.”
At the MFMA, Guenther said they are continuing to find innovative ways to be more inclusive and to support all sectors of the St. Paul community.
"We always work with advocates for food access, we're always working on trying to get more markets to have food programs that support both customers and vendors,” she said. “[We’re] trying to get markets to embrace this."