The stigma surrounding the high cost of organic food can mean less college student business for organic food vendors. Despite this, farmers at the market in Morningside Heights say that their business continues to thrive, relying on reasonable costs and appealing products to continue attracting hungry students and neighborhood popularity.
Greenmarket, a program that hosts farmers markets throughout the city for local farmers to sell their products, comes to the neighborhood every Thursday and Sunday. Set up along Broadway, the market is often filled with vendors who sell their food throughout the city and are veterans of the Greenmarket circuit.
Gail Bilto, who works at Beth’s Farm Kitchen and has worked in Greenmarkets for 25 years, claimed that increasing awareness of organic food has opened a door for local farmers. “Certainly people are more aware of organic, but we always like to say that local is the new organic.” Beth’s, operated by a New York City resident who works with local farmers, is based in Stuyvesant Falls, N.Y.
Ron Samascott, a farmer from Kinderhood, N.Y. who runs a stand that sells apples, ciders, and baked goods, explained that business has always been contingent upon the visibility of his location, but that ultimately, “the big key is flavor—the quality of the produce.” While some students in the area have made the effort to support locally-grown food for environmental reasons, he said, the ultimate reason for his apples’ popularity is their crisp texture and strong flavor.
The high cost of many organic and locally grown foods could deter students on a limited budget, though that did not seem to be a concern for Samascott, who claimed that especially during the summer, when he sells hand-picked berries, students were willing to pay higher prices for better quality. Bilto saw things differently, commenting that Columbia students often found her jams, which cost $7 per 8-ounce jar, pricey compared to jams sold at supermarkets. But Samascott’s apples, which mostly sell for $1.25 per pound, are in fact less expensive than many apple varieties sold at Westside Market.
Students shopping at the Greenmarket seemed to agree with Samascott’s assessment of student’s buying habits. Justine Shakespeare, BC ’08, said, “I don’t really make a big effort, but I would, given the choice, buy organic. And it tastes better.” Similarly, Pavel Godfrey, CC ’10, said that while he makes an effort to buy cage-free eggs, he does most of his shopping at Morton Williams and only occasionally comes to the Greenmarket for apples.
Ian Joskowitz, a manager at Westside Market, said that the supermarket too has been following a general trend toward offering local food, noting, “There is a company that we met through that market [the Greenmarket], and we now do business with them.” According to Joskowitz, Westside is making an effort to work with local farmers, especially as rising oil prices are making it more costly to bring food in from distant locations.
Samascott predicted that locally grown food would grow in popularity over time. “I think the customers are aware of local, and I think they will be more aware of local as the oil prices go up.”
Ultimately, though, many vendors felt that the distinction between organic and local food was not clear to many students. “They appreciate the market, but I don’t think they know about local products,” Cindy Lang, another vendor at Beth’s Farm Kitchen, said of Columbia students. “You have to understand that the Hudson valley is one of the last areas of almost entirely locally-owned farms and orchards in our country.”