CUESA Moves Farmers and Consumers to Embrace Sustainable Future
July 8, 2011 | Melinda Clark
The word ‘sustainable’ tends to get thrown around in the marketplace, which can be confusing to consumers who want to make conscientious food choices. That’s not the case when it comes to the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA). Through their farmers market, education and outreach programs, and framework of sustainable best practices, they’re helping set the standards for what the word can and should mean.
CUESA’s mission is to cultivate a sustainable food system by educating urban consumers and creating connections between them and local producers. Since 1999, CUESA has managed the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, a successful thrice-weekly market that requires its vendors to meet strict guidelines. CUESA also conducts outreach and education programs such as Schoolyard to Market, farm tours and cooking demos. And they’re about to start dipping their toes into the world of food policy.
A Sustainable Framework
To CUESA, a sustainable food system employs practices that are environmentally sound, humane, economically viable and socially just. CUESA’s Sustainable Agriculture Framework, an outline of guiding principles and best practices that are key to organization’s definition of sustainability covers the best practices for each of those categories – everything from crop rotation to providing a respectful work environment for employees. Vendors that wish to sell their produce at the Ferry Plaza market must demonstrate a commitment to these values. On the application, vendors are required to answer detailed questions about their farming practices, including their management of soil, crops, diversity, water and pests.
The Ferry Plaza market has become a role model for other local markets, many of which have adopted similar guidelines and applications.
“Internally, we’re all very proud that we’ve created that framework and are actively using it to advance our mission,” says CUESA Executive Director Dave Stockdale. “A lot of people talk about being sustainable; we’ve tried to really define it in more specific terms and apply it.”
Educating Urban Consumers
But promoting sustainable vendors is only half of the equation; educating consumers about sustainable practices is just as important.
“The consumer has an important role to play in shaping the food system by the choices they make,” explains Stockdale. “Policy, industry, large agribusiness may steer some of the way the system works, but the consumer does have a role in that. We believe if they’re more educated and understand the options that are out there and the consequences of the options, they can help change the marketplace.”
CUESA delivers that education through a wide range of formal and informal programming, including cooking demos and classes, lecture programs on sustainable agriculture issues, panel discussions with experts in food and ag, farm tours, a weekly e-newsletter that goes out to 11,000 subscribers and a website full of resources.
CUESA recently completed a pilot program called Schoolyard to Market at two local high schools. CUESA worked with students at the schools, both of which are considered at-risk, to implement an entrepreneurial program in which students plan and grow produce in school gardens to be sold at the farmers market. Proceeds support the upkeep of the garden – strengthening a space that the whole school can utilize. Stockdale said that at the conclusion of this year’s program, many students had enjoyed the market so much they asked if they could get jobs working in other vendors’ stalls.
Shaping the Future
It’s clear that farmers markets play an important role in the sustainable agriculture movement, as evidenced by their rising popularity over the last decade and a half. In 1994, the USDA began publishing the National Directory of Farmers Markets – a list of farmers markets operating in the U.S. It has shown consistent increases in the prevalence of markets, with a 16 percent increase in the number of markets from 2009 to 2010 alone.
Stockdale says that in his time at CUESA, he’s witnessed this change in public perception, with consumers realizing that they can simultaneously access great food and support local farmers and the local economy. He is optimistic that CUESA has and will continue to play a role in this upswing, and hopes the organization can use its influence in the world of sustainable agriculture to shape policy on the state and national level.
“What I’d like to see in five years is that at a national level, there’s more recognition of the principles and practices behind sustainable agriculture so that the national infrastructure, subsidy programs, etc. are all aligned to support that kind of ag in a way that they currently don’t,” says Stockdale. “I see our role in that continuing to be as a model to show that it can be done sustainably and profitably for everybody in the system…With both the top down and bottom up working together toward the same goals.”
For anyone interested in learning more about CUESA – or interested in eating delicious, sustainably produced food – CUESA is putting on a Summer Celebration this Sunday, July 10. The event will feature 35 different appetizer stations, by top chefs and made with food purchased at the market, as well as local mixologists, wine and spirit producers. Proceeds will go to CUESA’s education and outreach programs.