In the glow of a warm Manhattan morning, Union Square Greenmarket starts early. Eight am and its already busy. New Yorkers with takeaway coffee scurry across the square, grabbing an early morning breakfast, and saying a quick hello.
From across the tri-state area and beyond, food transport trucks have arrived and been unpacked. The early risers with baskets and trolleys in hand have started to do their rounds. Market displays are receiving their finishing touches. For some, this is a symphony of colour, a chorus of perfect symmetry - beetroots, potatoes, peppers and herbs; for others, it’s portable fridges stacked with apple ciders and freshly-harvested zucchini flowers.
This is a true farmers market. The smell of fresh basil perfumes the open air. Seasonal garden roses blush in the sunlight. The toppled heads of sunflowers bake in the early morning sun. A spectacle of heirloom tomatoes (striped, mottled, and ribbed) dazzle in the light as do vibrantly coloured and striped carrots. Their only competition is the colourful shopping trolleys that criss-cross the square.
From a handful of stalls in 1976 to over 140 today, Union Square Greenmarket is a New York institution. Open Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, everything comes from a 250 mile radius of the city and harvested, fresh from the ground, often hours of coming to market. (The exception is the apples, potatoes and cold storage goods.) All suppliers are visited by GrowNYC and vetted. There is an EBT station (traditionally known as food stamps) and an education station where regular food classes are held.
One can’t help but be struck by the range of produce on offer. Martin’s Pretzels sells Dutch-style hand-rolled pretzels from the simplest of ingredients - flour, water, yeast and salt. From upstate New York, Roxbury Mountain Maple brings its range of maple syrups, sugars and pure maple syrup nuggets to market. There are heirloom tomatoes from the 140 year old Stokes Farm, grown from seeds that have been saved for generations. Migliorelli Farm sells its apple cider for $6.00 for a gallon and then there’s fresh bottled milk from Ronnybrook Farm Diary. There are rustic loafs from Our Daily Bread and She Wolf Bakery and vegan carrot raisin cookies from Breezy Hill Orchard and Cider Mill.
On this warm summer’s day, there is not a street food truck in sight with most of the stalls dedicated to fresh produce. Walking from stall to stall is an opportunity to hear the stories behind what’s on offer. At Berkshire Berries, you can meet David Graves a pioneer in rooftop bee-keeping, having set up his first hive near the market in 1997. He now has 14 hives across Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Close by is the Union Square Grassman whose eye-drawing yellow school bus attracts the curious as well as his regulars who come to buy his lush nutrient-backed wheatgrass and greens grown in a converted warehouse in Brooklyn.
At the Union Square Greenmarket stall, you can learn how to make an after school snack of vegetables and yogurt dip as a part of their cooking programme. There are pickled beans, cucumbers and hot peppers from Millport Dairy, micro greens courtesy of Windfall Farms with the best display going to S & SO Produce Farms, one of the founding stalls at Greenmarket.
It is a truism to say that food can transform communities from reducing food miles, making healthy food available to all, to investing in local producers and farms to stimulate and sustain viable food economies and cultures. Grow NYC does this. It's Union Square Greenmarket is a celebration of what can be achieved when you bring the farm to the city.