Food With A Face

March 23, 2020

Essay by Kathryn Clarke Albright, excerpted from her book Exploring the Architecture of Place in America’s Farmers Markets (University of Cincinnati Press).


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Patron talks with farmers Bert Webster and Gwynn Hamilton. © Kathryn Clarke Albright.

I spend about two hours most Saturdays throughout the year at my hometown market chatting with vendors, shoppers, the market manager, and sometimes out-of-town visitors. The conversations vary in topic and duration. Some exchanges highlight current events around town and on campus, such as those occurring during Sustainability Week each year, while others focus on food production on local farms, from mushroom hunting to making kimchi or strawberry jam. One day while chatting with former market director Ellen Stewart, I asked her why she thinks people want to shop at farmers markets (besides to buy food). Ellen said, “It is about sharing knowledge. When I think about all I have learned about food, farming, and the environment from these vendors here, it is amazing. With all the information on the internet, there is still a high value in hearing, and learning in person from the farmers doing it every day, season to season.”1

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Market day at Market Square Park. © Kathryn Clarke Albright.

Ellen also talked about her interaction with students enrolled in Virginia Tech’s Civic Agriculture and Food Systems Minor, which offers multiple opportunities for civic engagement. For instance, the Civic Ag Minor requires students to complete fieldwork in collaboration with community partners through development of meaningful and mutually beneficial service learning projects and experiences. Community partners include our farmers market, local farms, university dining services, and nonprofit-managed community gardens.

Standing alongside Ellen at the market, I could not help but notice how the architecture of the pavilions and park encourage relaxed and informal exchanges. For example, a vendor is conversing with a shopper who’s leaning against a column, a guitarist and a drummer are sitting on a bench in the park playing music while onlookers sway to the melodic rhythms, and families nestle together at a table on the adjacent terrace enjoying food they’d purchased at the market. The configuration and modulation of the pavilion, the adjoining paved terrace, and the park with benches weaving among trees in the grass provide discrete places for individuals and families to gather in close proximity to each other and share in collective meaning-making. I read once on the Pomegranate Center’s website, “Unintentional encounters happen in intentional places.”2

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Lots happening at the Blacksburg Farmers Market. © Kathryn Clarke Albright.

In general, shoppers have more face-to-face verbal exchanges at a farmers market than at a supermarket. And they arrive at farmers markets as a family or with someone else, while most shoppers go to supermarkets alone.3 The capacity of farmers markets to promote and sustain person-to-person interaction that builds a sense of community and the value of place stands out in this age when electronic social media dominates how we “talk” and “share.” The importance of “food with a face—food that has a unique and important story behind its creation” is the topic of Brian Halweil’s book Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket, in which he contrasts the anonymity of food bought in a supermarket or big box retailer to that purchased at farmers markets.4

In many communities there are not a lot of opportunities for people from different backgrounds to mix, to get to know each other and feel a sense of kinship. As I show in this chapter, farmers markets are one of the few places where this interaction does happen. This is fundamentally different than churches, which divide along sectarian lines, or theaters and performing arts centers, which feature entertainment that by definition requires audiences to remain silent during the show. Farmers markets foster engagement among people of all ages, mixed ethnicities, and varied economic status. The latter became apparent to me through disbursement of SNAP tokens at my market to individuals and families I know in various settings other than the market, but who had otherwise showed no indication of their need to receive federally subsidized food assistance.

The writer Lucy Lippard gets at the importance of events in creating a sense of place when she states, “Place is latitudinal and longitudinal within the map of a person’s life. It is temporal and spatial, personal and political. A layered location replete with human histories and memories, place has width as well as depth. It is about connections, what surrounds it, what formed it, what happened there, what will happen there.”5

Historian J. B. Jackson adds the significance of recurring events over time to place-making in his essays about the American landscape. He writes, “The sense of place is reinforced by what might be called recurring events. A sense of place is something that we ourselves create in the course of time. It is the result of habit or custom.”6 In this way farmers markets are manifestations of a sense of place created not simply in the moment of an experience, but also through repeated visits. Lippard’s and Jackson’s writings helped me better understand how collective meaning-making at farmers markets becomes attributed to its place. These influences range from cultural history to urban identity, and the conditions can vary from climatic to proximity to farmland.

Belmont, CA, market patron Joan Dentler summed it up in a Belmont Patch editorial in which she wrote, “Farmers markets serve an important social purpose as a community gathering place where neighbors can stroll, chat, eat and do it all over again next week; it is more than just a place to pick up fresh produce. It’s become a hub of social activity and nonprofit outreach, providing residents with live music, as well as a place to pick up recipe ideas and tidbits on nutrition and sustainability.”7 In this way, farmers markets, as part of a person’s weekly or seasonal routine (whether vendor, shopper, or observer), fulfill part of the human need for individual and social meaning-making.

Planned or spontaneous, farmers markets’ capacity to sponsor and sustain civic engagement provides opportunities for public celebration. Most of these markets host monthly events during market hours, and due to their identity within the community, serve as the location for other organizations to sponsor events affiliated with its hometown market. Regardless of the type of farmers market—permanent structure or temporary pop-up canopies—the ritual of visiting these markets gives meaning to its location for shoppers. Meaning-making is amplified on special event days when, for example, an adjoining street is closed and a large tent is set up for tastings of fresh food from market vendors. Events give new meaning to a market for some, while the market gives special meaning to the event for others. Longtime customers and newcomers alike sense the synergy between special events and regular market activities. The myriad of events reflect the seasons in the foods available as well as the politics du jour; some promote what the vendors sell, while others offer cultural enrichment.

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Renaissance Music Academy musicians play at the farmers market. © Kathryn Clarke Albright.

Local and adjoining community residents enjoy tomato tastings in August, salsa festivals in September, and slices of apples in October, as well as annual chili cook-offs and ice cream socials. Musicians who play on market days attract teenagers, families, and retirees alike to hang out and listen. Some market events feature local artists from painter to poet, others partner with fundraising organizations that sponsor 5k fun runs and bicycle races that begin and end at the market. “In many cases, markets become a forum for politicians, community activists, and other community leaders to raise awareness about local issues,” writes Halweil.8 Farmers markets are magnets for human expression and interaction.

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Native Americans perform ritual. © Kathryn Clarke Albright.

Such is the situation at Blacksburg’s annual Breakfast at the Market, a significant community event since 2005. It occurs in mid-July and attracts more than three hundred people for a couple of hours starting at 8:30 a.m. Twenty-five plates of frittata, cubed potatoes, peach halves topped with blueberries, and slices of whole grain breads are served every fifteen minutes. Former mayor Ron Rordam and his wife, Mary, have attended the 9:30 seating most years since the event’s debut. Each year, the then-mayor and other local leaders use the market event as an opportunity to interact with the citizens as they stop to chat with people sitting at the tables set up under a thirty-foot by forty-foot tent straddling Draper Road adjacent to Market Square Park and overlooking the hubbub of market shoppers. Bill Brown, the former Blacksburg Police Chief, has regularly attended the event for years, and used it as a forum to reach his constituency during his run for Montgomery County Supervisor. After winning reelection, Town Council member Susan Anderson moved among the diners thanking her constituents as they finished their meal. All of these local public figures maintain that the annual breakfast is an event that they simply cannot miss; the event and the market unite the community as members share in the pleasure of local food—further evidence that farmers markets are scenes of convivial civic interaction.

I first became aware of civic engagement by observing my mother’s father, Grandpa John, helping others through Kiwanis Club activities and Grace Lutheran Church initiatives. My understanding of commitment to one’s community expanded upon reading the fifteenth-century treatise On the Art of Building in which Leon Battista Alberti details what an architect must know and what architecture must provide. According to Alberti, one concept the architect must consider is civitas—the inhabitants of a city and the union of its citizens. He gives status to civitas by stating that it is essential for creating a civil society, both in its meaning as “civic,” involving government, and “public,” involving local populace. Furthermore, in locating a city that will serve this entity, the architect must also consider the significance of place. Alberti asserts:

the pleasures of life are sweeter when available at home than when they must be sought from elsewhere. And so, the foremost authors of antiquity, who recorded other people’s views and their own ideas on the subject, considered the ideal location for a city to be one that provided for all its requirements from its own territory and would not need to import anything.9

With my broadened grasp of an architect’s civic responsibilities, I find farmers markets fulfill an important role as a part of every locale’s civil society—in their capacity to provide local food, and as a community gathering place.

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Local musicians entertain at Mingle at the Market in Blacksburg, Virginia. © Kathryn Clarke Albright.

Christian Norberg-Schultz offers a succinct definition of place in his seminal book, Genius Loci; he writes, “place is space that has a distinct character.”10 Whether permanent buildings or an assemblage of temporary pop-up canopies, farmers markets stand out among their surrounding buildings and landscapes, as there is a high ratio of people to goods for sale and occupied space. This level of activity and scale of interaction and interface that is characteristic of these types of markets distinguishes them from other food shopping experiences, such as conventional supermarkets and big-box retailers. In these kinds of stores, the sense of place is one of vastness lacking in memories to cherish; spaces where the aisles are wide and long, the ceilings are unnecessarily tall and cluttered with dangling fluorescent lights and there are lots of products but few workers. Shoppers scurry the aisles ending up at an array of check-out stations staffed with uniformly dressed cashiers who input into the register the number of a food item they often do not know the name of.

People arrive at farmers markets in various ways; those who live in neighborhoods more than a half-mile away reach the market via bus, rail, or car. Walking towards the market they join others, who reside in adjacent houses or apartments, toting empty canvas bags ready to be filled with fresh goods. Strollers and wagons serve double duty as carriers of children and bags of market goods. Sidewalks and street crossings are jammed with more pedestrians than on surrounding blocks. From a hundred feet away or less, the market’s allure heightens as its excitement and activity becomes visible.

Upon arrival at the market, the frequent modulation and uniqueness of the individual stalls of pop-up tents and pavilion markets emphasizes the human scale. Shoppers progress through the market in distinct ways; many moving in and out of stalls while others amble along and gaze into or pause around a compelling display. The personality of the vendor is manifest in the display of goods and signage. Most vendors have a unique and notable sign, often with graphics hand-painted onto wooden boards or canvas. There are no shopping carts to fill and take to the cashier to buy; each selection and purchase involves a transaction—a physical and verbal exchange—with the grower or maker of the food.

Separately and together the features of farmers markets translate into places of transformational consequence. These markets’ capacity for collective meaning-making establishes them as institutions that provide continuity and stability. In Making Common Sense, authors Wilfred Drath and Charles Palus stress that humans have an innate need to make sense of experiences by mentally linking them to specific places and/or certain activities. Communities make meaning by engaging in a repeated activity over a span of time. Often a group of initial strangers coalesce through shared interests and experiences, and thus form a sense of community. The community spirit and mutual assistance inspired by farmers markets has a noteworthy impact, as sociologist Robert Sommer observes: “In a complex bureaucratized society nobody seems responsible for anything. The solution is tangible action on a local level by the people immediately concerned with a problem.”11 Throughout my explorations, I’ve found many examples of situations in which citizens come together to establish new markets, build new structures, and renovate existing ones not only in pursuit of fresh locally grown and made food but also for the stability it offers as a place of community. In general, the regularity of the physical presence of farmers markets provides an innate sense of continuity. The permanence of heritage building and open-air pavilion markets, however, offers the most stability.

My involvement with the Blacksburg Farmers Market over the past two decades and the sense of community I’ve cultivated with my hometown market, its vendors and customers, motivated me to use my architectural background and experience to increase the presence and permanence of the market through construction of a pavilion and pocket park that would share its identity with the farmers market. To begin the process, I met with vendors to determine their needs and wants; I proceeded to develop alternative proposals, all of which included a small park as community gathering place. The pavilion project led me to numerous discussions with town council and staff members, downtown merchants, and residents. As Blacksburg citizens learned about the project, they supported it through financial donations—they understood what the structure and park could offer to the farmers market and downtown area. The L-shaped pavilion that shelters the twice-weekly farmers market and the adjoining park serves as a community gathering place for everyone every day. The position of the park on the corner of the block gives it high visibility and easy access. The curvilinear benches facing towards the center of the park and the trees along the perimeter provide sense of enclosure. The continuity of the cobblestones under the pavilion, in the parking area, and in the alley impart a sense of a public plaza. In just the few years since the completion of the structure and park in 2009, Market Square Park has become a downtown destination—a place with material substance, shape, texture, and color—that promotes community gathering and collective meaning-making. On non-market days during the spring, summer, and fall, over thirty local musicians gather for Market Square Jam starting at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays, and Vintage Market occurs on the second Sunday each month from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Blacksburg’s Market Square Park pavilion is a vivid example, representative of many I have found in my exploration of market pavilions, illustrating the capacity of a farmers market to establish sustainable connections among citizens and fulfill the enduring human need for civic and social engagement.

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Site plan of the Blacksburg Farmers Market. © 2019 by Alireza Borhani Haghighi.

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Cross section of the Blacksburg Farmers Market. Drawing courtesy of Reza Mousavynejad .

Writer and local food advocate Michael Pollan asserted on National Public Radio in 2009, “Farmers’ markets are the new public square in America.”12 In Mark Francis’s and Lucas Griffith’s book about recently created public squares, they expand upon their significance. They write that such entities “signal a return to civic life and an opportunity to reinvigorate public space with social and cultural vitality.”13 Indeed, the establishment of markets as new public squares is more of a renaissance than a new phenomenon. Farmers markets in America find their origins in the nineteenth-century municipal public markets that were located in conspicuous, convenient places within the main public square or thoroughfare of its cities. Town plans in that era depicted the location of public markets in the center of town amid commercial and governmental districts, with ease of access from densely populated adjacent neighborhoods. James Hamilton’s plan for Lancaster, Pennsylvania designated one of the four squares at its main crossroads for the Central Market, which opened in 1795, and remains a vital part of its downtown and surrounding community today. It was also common practice to situate a market house in the middle of a major thoroughfare, like the High Street Market in Philadelphia. In the early eighteen hundreds, American leaders anticipated the eventual need for market houses and designated specific locations for them in town plans, such as in Detroit’s 1807 plan, Indianapolis’s 1821 plan, and Louisville’s 1836 plan.14 Unfortunately, few of these buildings remain today. Fortunately, the Library of Congress has numerous historic photos, which are the focus of public market historian Helen Tangeris’s book Public Markets—a visual sourcebook of the buildings and spaces designated as urban marketplaces for fresh food.

Tangeris has written extensively on the design of nineteenth-century market houses and their placement within urban settlements, with the aim to nurture civic culture through access to fresh food for America’s mixed ethnicities with varied incomes. The strong tie between location of farmers markets and civic culture is apparent even for temporary markets that set up pop-up canopies in public plazas and streets once a week. “For the most part, people shop at the farmers market that’s convenient to their home or work—in fact, that’s the point,” notes Washington Post writer Nancy McKeon.15

As mentioned in the Introduction, farmers markets are also often set up in open-air pavilions located in a park or adjacent to a parking lot. Whatever the configuration of these structures, they invite performances and events other than farmers markets, ranging from holiday celebrations and family reunions to church picnics and fundraisers. In Virginia, Salem’s farmers market is set up in an L-shaped open shed adjacent to a downtown parking lot Mondays through Saturdays from April to December. However, for the annual town-sponsored Star Bar-B-Q event in late September, the farmers market closes early to enable a change of vendors: the Bar-B-Q vendors offer their grilled pork specialties to the delight of locals. Towns and cities increasingly rely on the value of these mixed-use venues to assist in reviving and maintaining thriving downtowns. Likewise, since the early 1980s, politicians in American cities have found that farmers markets provide an effective strategy for economic redevelopment that brings new vitality to public spaces and creates a vital focal point for existing neighborhoods. Charleston, West Virginia’s Capitol Market sets up under sheds constructed in the late 1990s adjoining its rehabilitated train depot adjacent to downtown, which contain year-round food vendors and a coffee shop. Pop-up canopies that comprise San Francisco’s Ferry Market cover the plaza next to its restored Ferry Terminal Building, which houses a butcher, a baker, a cheese-maker, and other regionally sourced food.

Buildings that were once vital to a city as transportation access now provide entrée to healthy locally grown and prepared food, while also serving as places for community gathering.

I find that each of these seemingly separate constituents is actually part of a wide-reaching regional community. As Brian Halweil concludes, “Local food might also provide one of the few remaining connections to nature, rural ways, rural people, and an awareness of what is happening to our food supply.”16 Mark Francis and Lucas Griffith elaborate on the influence of farmers markets on people’s awareness of food, saying, “Within the United States, the current farmers market movement marks a return to an historical means of food distribution, and a rediscovery of the value of locally or regionally produced foods.”17 One inspiring illustration of the community that farmers markets create is their ability to forge relationships between restaurant chefs and a nearby farmers market, and thus with farmers. In cities across America, there are legions of chefs who have sought out the freshest, tastiest food available through farmers markets.

These chefs have in turn invested in ensuring that the food they use was grown or produced directly from a local farmer. They have commissioned farmers to grow specialty crops and heirloom varieties of foods that have dwindled in the past half century.

I discovered a vivid example of this symbiosis while researching Chicago’s Green City Market in Lincoln Park, where chefs come to discover the ingredients they will need for the menu they aspire to serve at their restaurant. Their weekly interactions about specific crops or meats and methods of production naturally evolved into alliances. This farmer-to-chef rapport was one of the aims that Abbey Mandel had for Green City Market when she founded it in 1997. To this end, an email from someone at Green City is sent out once a week to more than 150 chefs describing what will be at market that week. Today over 115 of Chicago’s restaurant chefs source food from farmers who sell at Green City. For instance, Three Sisters Garden grows specific varieties of squash for Prairie Grass Café as well as black beans and corn for Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. After the email notification, Brent and Beth Eccles of Green Acres Farm get special orders from chefs at Piccolo Sogno and the Sofitel Hotel. The marketplace serves as a location for delivery and pick-up for most chefs, but many chefs also shop on market day because some produce is only sold at the market. The Eccles say certain produce, like burgundy okra, is too hot an item to be on that email list. I find their comment reassuring: the role of the farmers market in providing access to fresh local food to the public at large remains a top priority, while the market also meets the desires of the elite chefs and their clientele. This is yet another illustration of the broad-based community that farmers markets nurture.

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Green City Market. Photograph courtesy of Aneela Jain.

In this fashion farmers markets create a sense of camaraderie between chefs and farmers because chefs know they are cooking with the best ingredients—locally grown, and produced by farmers practicing non-chemical methods of production. In fact, some farmers view building a diverse supportive community as fundamental to their business—indeed, as part of their way of life and living. Such is the case for other vendors at Green City Market, Bare Knuckle Farm’s Jess Piskor and Abra Berens, who host monthly farm dinners that include customers from the market. In this way people gain knowledge of how to prepare unfamiliar foods, while Abra develops a network of people who enjoy her cooking. Building community is also a part of the business plan for Glade Road Growing, a local farm that sells at my hometown market. After a conversation with Pat Bixler of Baseline Solar, Jason Pall and Sally Walker started transforming a portion of Bixler’s property in 2010. This would become their farm as well as home to other enterprises—Rising Silo Brewery and Tabula Rasa Restaurant. They also assisted the startup of Strong Earth Pork and Hoof-Hearted Farm. I am gratified to learn that there is an economic benefit to building community; it nurtures new small local businesses.

As mentioned in the introduction, another inspiring but very different way farmers markets connect with a broader community is through acceptance of monies provided to limited-income households by the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But there is even more advantage for this segment of the population; many farmers markets not only accept this method of payment via electronic transfer but also have SNAP-based incentive programs that double the value of redeemed subsidies between $10 to $30 each market day. Yet a barrier of awareness remains for a large portion of the eligible population: knowing that farmers markets accept SNAP and even will double the value often relies on individual farmers markets handing out flyers at local health departments and government assistance agencies. The nonprofit Wholesome Wave has banded together the independent farmers markets not only to expand their access to the USDA’s Double Value Program but also to increase the available funding. One reason for Wholesome Wave’s success is consistent data collection of program impacts, which in turn assists in developing outcomes that meet their goals. They survey farmers’ market customers, vendors, and managers. They track federal benefit and nutrition incentive sales. In 2012, Wholesome Wave’s statistics helped leverage their funding to raise an estimated additional $4 million from public and private sources. In 2018 they report helping to support over 1,400 farmers markets in 49 states.18

In addition to these increasingly impactful outcomes, there is a by-product: this access also builds a sense of community for an often-disenfranchised population. Adelante Mujeres launched the Forest Grove Farmers Market in 2005, to foster cross-cultural exchange at a weekly community event that provides an outlet for small farmers and food producers to connect with the community by making healthy foods accessible through the SNAP Double Value program.19

I have also observed over the course of several years that, once the Double Value program was established at my hometown market, local churches and allied groups as well as individuals have made annual donations to increase the monies consistently available for our SNAP Double Value customers. For half a dozen years, local artists donated to our annual Art Auction, which benefitted our SNAP Double Value and was held in conjunction with the local Agriculture Coalition’s monthly free meal. Each year, around $1,000 was raised through a silent auction that occurred during dinner. This amount of money translates to providing 100 SNAP customers $10 for $10 of SNAP redeemed per market day. During those years, if a SNAP recipient shopped at our market every month from April through December, they could have received $720 in additional funds to spend on fresh healthy food.

The acceptance of SNAP benefits at established farmers markets is also transforming marginalized neighborhoods through the emergence of a new type of market—the Mobile Market. Food deserts, as they are called, occur in situations where SNAP is not only a prevalent method of purchasing food (albeit usually processed and prepared fast food) but also where there are usually no grocery stores and very limited availability of fresh affordable food. From Washington, DC, to Chicago and across the country to the San Francisco Bay Area, residents in inner-city neighborhoods have benefitted from mobile markets since their emergence in 2011. The symbiosis between rural and urban, country and city, and the farm and these markets is a growing necessity for every region’s economic and cultural flourishing.

1 “Ellen Stewart, interview by Kathryn Albright, August 27, 2011, Blacksburg, VA.
2 Pomegranate Center website, accessed May 22, 2012,
3 Robert Sommer, John Herrick, and Ted R. Sommer, “The Behavioral Ecology of Supermarkets and Farmers’ Markets,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 1, no. 1 (March 1981): 13–19.
4 Brian Halweil, Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), 123.
5 Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society (New York: The New Press, 1997), 32.
6 John Brinckerhoff “J.B.” Jackson, A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 152.
7 Joan S. Dentler, “Farmers’ Markets Serve as Community Gathering Places,” Belmont Patch, August 15, 2011,
8 Halweil, Eat Here, 100.
9 Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, trans. and ed. Joseph Rykwert, Robert Tavernor, and Neil Leach (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), 95.
10 Christian Norberg-Shultz, Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1979), 5.
11 Sommer, “The Behavioral Ecology,” 13–19.
12 Michael Pollan, National Public Radio, August 21, 2009.
13 Mark Francis and Lucas Griffith, “The Meaning and Design of Farmers’ Markets as Public Space: An Issue-Based Case Study,” Landscape Journal 30, no. 2 (2011): 261–269.
14 Helen Tangires, Public Markets and Civic Culture in Nineteenth Century America (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2003), 31.
15 Nancy McKeon, “Peak Season,” Washington Post, August 8, 2006.
16 Halweil, Eat Here, 162.
17 Francis and Griffith, “The Meaning and Design,” 263.
18 Wholesome Wave website, accessed December 28, 2018,
19 “Executive Summary,” 2009–2012 Outcomes and Trends, Wholesome Wave, 3.