In the U.S. and around the world, there is a growing interest in reconnecting city and countryside, including through stronger regional foodsheds, to cope with rising threats to human and environmental health. Examples of these threats include more frequent extreme weather events, land consumption and environmental degradation, as well as rise of diet-related non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and obesity. Thus, an important question for city and state policymakers is how to reestablish genuine urban-rural food linkages to repair local ecologies, economies, and human health, especially in dense and busy metropolitan regions like New York. The history of NYC’s Greenmarket, established back in 1976, offers a wealth of insights into how we can do exactly that.

Barry Benepe

To learn more, CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute Food Policy Monitor Director, Dr. Rositsa T. Ilieva met with Barry Benepe and his wife Judith Spektor. The interview was also attended by CUNY ASRC Faculty Affiliate and Associate Professor (adjunct) at Brooklyn College, Dr. Ann Goodman who facilitated the initial contact and co-organized a related public forum on this topic. Barry co-founded the New York City’s Greenmarket in 1976 and directed it for 22 years. He has been professionally involved in planning and architecture since 1955 and has ample experience in the conservation of open space, historic preservation, transportation, urban and regional planning, and architectural and site design in the Northeastern United States and the U.K. He is the winner of multiple awards for his work on Greenmarket, including the Doris C. Freedman Award in 2006 and the Rockefeller Foundation Jane Jacobs Medal for Lifetime Leadership in 2007.

Rositsa T. Ilieva (RTI): Why and how did you create Greenmarket?

Barry Benepe (BB): Well, Robert (Bob) Lewis [co-founder of Greenmarket] and I were both concerned about the loss of farmland. We decided that what we needed to do to save farmland was farmers markets because they are the only way for channeling income from food sales directly to the farmers. In fact, the root cause of farmland loss was that farmers were being left out of the picture. I also made the connection with the absence of decent farm grown food in the city. Bob then identified a man named Richard Pough, who was dedicated to saving farmland and was the founding president of The Nature Conservancy. We went to see him, and he gave us $800 in cash to raise money and find a nonprofit sponsor. We did find a nonprofit sponsor with the Council on the Environment of New York City (CENYC) – now called GrowNYC – which was ideal because it was headed by business and government. The Mayor at the time, Abraham Beame, was co-chair of CENYC. The other co-chair was Marian Sulzberger Heiskell, who was the wife of Andrew Heiskell, publisher of “Time” magazine. Marian also was a member of the Board of Directors of “The New York Times” and was active philanthropist in land conservation and the urban green space movement. Thus, she brought vital financial support to the Council, but also energy and commitment. The executive heads were Lys McLaughlin (Executive Director CENYC, 1978-2006) and Barry C. Samuel (Associate Director CENYC). I spoke to them to propose that we do a farmers market. I wrote up a one-page agreement where I would raise the money and run the market and they would be the sponsor. They signed the agreement and I became the Director of Greenmarket.

RTI: What about the name “Greenmarket”? How did you come up with it?

BB: I went back to visit an old colleague and friend of mine in England and, when I met him, he asked if I had seen their new green market. Then I said to myself “Oh that’s where the word came from.” When I came out of the railroad station, I saw a big sign saying “greenmarket” and an arrow pointed down the street. In England, “greenmarket” is a generic term meaning plant market, but I didn’t realize that when I borrowed the word. When we developed the program here, the Council on the Environment obtained a service mark protection on the word “Greenmarket” so it couldn’t be used by anybody else but our farmers market program. We just didn’t want people who were ordinary wholesalers to use it. However, if someone was using it for a genuine farmers market, we didn’t object. Additionally, what we wanted to do was have the City Council legitimize the word “farmers market” to mean that the farmers were enrolled in the market themselves, but the City Council wasn’t willing to go in that direction. So, anybody could say “farmers market” and did – even grocery stores put signs saying “farmers market.”

RTI: How important was it for you to understand the region in planning for the first Greenmarkets?

BB: While working on establishing Greenmarket, we developed a study about how we can feed ourselves as an urban area. We made a map of the region and developed the concept of “foodshed” by defining the valleys of where the food came from. The most embracing term, which Bob Lewis found, was “The Great Valley,” which included lands in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. I had reports showing all the food that was being sold through the market system and most food was coming through the Hunts Point wholesale market. Looking at the numbers, we saw that some of the crops could be supplied by regional farmers. So that became the goal. How could local farmers take a portion of those food sales? And how that could be to the advantage of both the farmers and the consumers. It may have been my subjective opinion, but the peaches from Long Island tasted better than the peaches from Texas; they were riper and sweeter. And the tomatoes were more mature, juicer, and also better tasting. So local food was better to eat and probably more nutritious in the broader sense. And, of course, it had also less gas miles attached to it.

RTI: You mentioned that preserving farmland was one of the key goals when starting out the Greenmarket. Did you have any firsthand experience, or knowledge, of farmers who were struggling to stay in business?

BB: My father who was living at the time reminded me that I pretty much grew up on a farm. He bought a farm when I was 10 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The name of the farm was Melody Manor. So, I grew up and worked on a farm. I helped with harvest and delivered food to market. I saw how farmers were being ripped off on the auction block. An auction block is a building where a truck would drive through with the produce and auctioneers would sit on benches on both sides and bid. It was assumed that the bidding process would ensure that farmers get a good price for their produce. In fact, however, there were only two or three buyers and they would collude rather than bid and, taking turns, would suppress the prices. I often saw the farmers leave sad and angry. On an occasion, they would even refuse to sell and would drive home and dump the produce. I knew firsthand the difficulty in making money as a farmer.

Now, my father was a so-called “gentleman farmer.” He made his money in New York City, first as the sales manager and then president of Leacock & Co. Inc. which produced linens and other household textiles; he worked really hard to make sure that the farm paid for itself. The income produced by the sales had to match the cost of producing the food. In addition to selling at the auction block, which we didn’t do for very long, we were selling to a freezing plant nearby called the Shoreland Freezing Plant in Fruitland, Maryland and to a cannery which was purchased by the Campbell Soup Company. I would take tomatoes to the cannery and I would personally drive the truck with 600 boxes of tomatoes on them and wait in line for a couple of hours until we unloaded them. I was just old enough to drive. But there were also a few times in which individuals directly came to buy from my father and they committed to pay in cash. That left an impression on me as I could see the real worth of produce. That was in the background of what led to Greenmarket.

RTI: How did you engage the first farmers to become part of the Greenmarket?

BB: Bob and I divided our responsibilities and some of mine were to oversee communications, publicity, and fundraising in the city, whereas he would work on developing collaborations with farmers. In the U.S., every county has a County Agricultural Extension agent who maintains a list of farmers with farm stands that sell directly to the public. It is with the extension agent’s help that Bob would locate the farmers who we would then reach out to and have conversations about joining Greenmarket.

RTI: And what were some of the first steps in term of fundraising for the first market?

BB: We first approached the J.M. Kaplan Fund with a budget proposal to study the feasibility of the City running the market. Ray Rubinow, president of the Fund, said we should find someone to actually run the market. Thus, we changed our initial $6,000 proposal for a feasibility study to a $35,000 program to actually run the market and hire staff. We approached the Council on the Environment to run it. I as an individual did not qualify as a non-profit recipient. I would act on behalf of the nonprofit organization we had partnered with, the Council on the Environment, to raise the money. That first year, I was only able to raise something like $16,000, but that was a good start. Bob and I could pay our part time salaries and also begin to hire people.

RTI: Fascinating. I am curious to hear about the physical space of the first markets. The inaugural Greenmarket you created was located on 59th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan. How did you choose that location and how important was siting for the success of the market?

BB: Location is everything. And we learned that very quickly. We came up with the idea for Greenmarket, but we did not have locations in mind. For our very first site, the location was suggested by Suzanne Davis, the director of the J.M. Kaplan Fund which gave us the money to start after we partnered with the Council on the Environment to run the market. Jack Kaplan, founder of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, headed the Welch’s Grape Juice Company. The J.M. Kaplan Fund was established when he sold the company to its growers and established one of the first and largest agricultural co-ops in the U.S., the National Grape Co-operative Association in Westfield, New York.

So, the first site was proposed by the then-Executive Director of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, Suzanne Davis, who said, “There is a site near where I live owned by the city. I would like to see the market there.” It turned out that the site was at 59th Street and 2nd Avenue at the foot of the Queensboro Bridge. The site was owned by the city because a trolley was supposed to come from the lower level of the bridge. However, at that point, the trolley was discontinued so the city never used it as an approach road. Rather, it was being used temporarily to park police cars. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) – the labor union representing police officers in New York City – had an agreement with the city to use any unused city land for parking their personal cars. Thus, a city official who worked for NYC Department of Transportation (DOT), helped persuade them to give us the lot for the farmers market one day a week. The PBA actually voted – which I learned only later – to give up the lot on Saturdays for the farmers market.

The location was ideal because it was a block from the Bloomingdale’s Department Store on one side and Alexander’s Department Store on the other and was fenced in so people couldn’t just walk in and out and we could control entry. People would actually line up at the gate in the morning. The 59th Street was an extremely successful location and taught us everything. If we hadn’t started out with a good site, that would have been a barrier to the subsequent development of Greenmarket.

The first Greenmarkets at 59th Street & 2nd Ave and Union Square. Photographs courtesy of Barry Benepe.

RTI: And once you had the success of the first market, what was key in keeping the momentum and scaling up to the next location?

BB: As I mentioned, one of my main responsibilities when starting out was to handle publicity. I would send out news releases about Greenmarket to TV channels and the press. Since the beginning, we had an overwhelmingly good response from the media. Commercial television stations such as Channels 2, 5, and 7 would call me to put Greenmarket on their news programs – not as a commercial ad! In their view the Greenmarket offered a refreshing, happy ending after the bad news of the day. Being seen on the city’s news programs got us instant notoriety and City agencies started calling us saying “How come we didn’t know about you? We are getting calls from City Hall and we don’t know who you are.” We did have a Mayor’s representative on the Council on the Environment, but the media had a big impact in getting the message out to everyone. And this is how we got the offer to set a Greenmarket in Union Square.

RTI: Could you tell us more about the beginning of the Greenmarket in Union Square? To this day, this remains one of the most popular Greenmarkets in the city.

BB: Shortly after we successfully established the first farmers market, I got a call from Mithoo Baxter, Director of the Manhattan Planning Office of New York City’s Department of City Planning. She invited us to bring the Greenmarket to Union Square because, in her view, the market would help the stores to fight against economic losses. One of the major stores there – S. Klein, which was very famous for bargain sales, closed and so the area was running down financially. There was a concern about how to move business back in. The department had also just put out a plan to revive Union Square. I had two conditions that I brought to Mithoo Baxter for Greenmarket to set up at Union Square: one, to obtain the permits from the Department of Highways and the Department of Traffic. And, two, to change the plan for the square by taking out the word “tennis courts” and replacing it with “farmers markets” in that area, which she did. It became an official city plan for the farmers market. And, in fact, the Greenmarket was offering a truly public use of a public space.

From that point on we would get calls from various people to say they needed a farmers market and we became very choosy about the locations. For instance, I got a call from the Washington Heights and Inwood Association business group who said they wanted to have a market there. The first area we went to visit was not ideal so we walked up to 175th Street and there was a wide and short street, unlike the others, close to a subway stop which I thought would be a good location for a market. And it turned out to be a fantastic location. And the head of the association helped us obtain the permits.

RTI: Public space design and regulations seem to be one important entry point to bring the region closer to the everyday life of New Yorkers. In a seminal article you published in 1965 titled “The Pedestrian in the City”, you state that “Walking is the true medium of the market place” and that “our goal is not only to make cities more efficient, but to make them livable as well.” How important was this work in planning for the Greenmarket twelve years later?

BB: I made some studies and drawings for Union Square to improve it as a walking space. I wanted to pedestrianize most of the space. I wanted to have the park at one level with the plaza. So that you could walk into the park from the North end. 1934 was the big change – to construct the mezzanine they had to raise the park by three feet and created a barrier. And, in another drawing, I showed how Broadway traffic came around to the North and did not go down to the west side of the square.

RTI: So, if you had to summarize, what makes a farmers market successful, especially in a busy and dense city like New York?

BB: There are three key aspects when planning for farmers markets: accessibility, visibility, and legibility. The market needs to be visible and easily accessible from public transit, but also legible, meaning easily recognizable and memorable. For instance, the Abingdon Square Greenmarket turned out extremely well because it was on a path people were already walking. That market actually used to be on Gansevoort Street, but no one came there. Then someone suggested that we move the market to Abingdon Square. We were concerned that we would really be crowding that park but, we crowded the park sidewalk, not the park itself and that was fine.

Brochure designed to promote Greenmarket and illustrate what kinds of produce is in season and in stock at different times of the year. The map shows the locations of Greenmarket farmers in the region and it was published in: Benepe, B. (1977) Greenmarket: The Rebirth of Farmers Markets in New York City. New York: The Council on the Environment of New York City, p. 18. Materials courtesy of Barry Benepe, photograph by author.

RTI: Were any of the first Greenmarkets aimed at bringing fresh, in-season produce to lower-income, underserved communities in the city?

BB: One of the other successful markets we started with, thanks to good leadership locally, was the market on 137th Street in Harlem. At the time, Minerva Coleman was the Director of Economic Development at an organization called Harlem Teams for Self Help and she asked us to come to her street. She was already a community organizer and able to bring people out on the street to attend the market. Minerva was on the street and made sure people came and Bob Lewis contacted John McPhee, who is the author of Giving Good Weight (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979). This is a compendium of various articles which first appeared in The New Yorker. The lead chapter in the book is about Greenmarket and he wrote it while selling produce at the 137th Street Greenmarket site which Minerva Coleman ran. This chapter was later read in Congress by a Congressperson from California and was put in the Congressional Record. So, this was a very important book which gave national prominence to Greenmarket. Today, Maritza Owens is doing fantastic work with the Harvest Home farmers markets in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx.

RTI: What about the connection between lower-income New Yorkers and the farmers? Today, almost all Greenmarkets accept SNAP and have an EBT card reader, so people can use their federal benefits to purchase farm-fresh food grown in the region.

BB: The strongest program, in our experience, has been the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), administered by New York State, which focuses exclusively on locally grown fruits and vegetables. The program provides checks to all those already enrolled in the WIC program, so women, infants and children, and the CSFP, which is for seniors. It seemed that the FMNP produced a greater percentage of income to farmers than SNAP-related incentives. And we saw this also at the farmers market we run in Saugerties, NY. This year, we were able to raise a lot of private money to match every SNAP dollar with a private dollar, a huge incentive – the initiative is called “Market Bucks” – and we still didn’t get a lot of participation. Part of the reason may be that, unlike FNMP, SNAP isn’t restricted to fruits and vegetable only and people use it to buy all kinds of foods at brick-and-mortar food stores. Additionally, the distribution points of SNAP might not be sufficiently promoting the markets. Another barrier we encountered recently is the electronic system and the software which is provided to the agencies by a company and they changed companies and we were left in the middle and had none at all. So, in my experience, the SNAP program is not as efficiently administered. FMNP is also easier for the farmers because they can directly put the checks into their accounts.

RTI: Another question regarding economics and local prosperity. In what other ways do you think farmers markets bring economic activity to the city? And the region?

BB: When Bob and I started Greenmarket in New York City, we did not invent the concept of a farmers market in the city, but read about a farmers market run by the Chambers of Commerce in Syracuse, NY. The head of the Chambers of Commerce was Susan Snook and I was really inspired by her work. She did a survey of shoppers in the farmers market and found that 35% of the farmers market customers went downtown to shop for the first time, which was her main goal. And this was our selling point when proposing Greenmarket in New York City. We also did a shoppers survey at Greenmarket and we were surprised to see how many shoppers in Union Square came from New Jersey. This meant that we were a magnet for the region—not just local, and that’s probably still true. Even in the Saugerties Farmers Market we find this to be true as we get visitors from Chicago and other places, near and far.

RTI: That sounds great. And what about the farmers? Were any of them relying on being part of the Greenmarket to thrive economically or stay on the land?

BB: That varied, but yes, including big farmers. One of our biggest farms, a black dirt muckland wholesale farm, did not expect to sell much retail at Greenmarket. They ended up selling much more than expected. Another example that comes to mind, speaking about the role of Greenmarket in supporting farmers economically, is a farmer who did not own his farm but rented it from the County Executive. Once, I went to a dinner and sat next to the County Executive and he shared that, as far as he was concerned, farmland was a land bank for future sales for development. But the fact that he came to a farmers dinner showed that he had taken it seriously. So, we can say that, to a great extent, farmers markets helped to turn the land away from development to food.

RTI: As with all innovations, there must have been difficult moments and challenges along the way. What were some of the roadblocks you came across?

BB: Well, initially farmers were very suspicious about coming to New York City and feared that they would bring down their produce and go back home with empty pockets due to the high levels of crime in the city at that time. We had to overcome that resistance. The other challenge we had to overcome was from the wholesale grocers group who, after the 59th Street market was created, put out an article in the newspaper condemning us as competitors with the stores. They didn’t want to have unfair competition from the City because we were acting as a nonprofit City-sponsored operation. However, when it became clear to them that we were dealing only with farmers and local farm produce, their concerns completely dissolved, and they no longer perceived us as a threat to them. They originally thought that we would use our money to do exactly what they were doing and supply produce from all over the country.

Union Square Greenmarket was actually very slow to begin, unlike the market on 59th Street, which was packed with people. In some of the pictures we had to put the vegetables in the foreground as they weren’t many shoppers yet, certainly nothing like today. But we were able to expand it in three ways. Initially we did only fruits and vegetables and then we brought meats and cheeses which extended the season. We started with Saturdays, then we added Wednesdays, and finally arrived at four days a week. Most farmers markets in the city are only one day a week.

Brochure designed for promoting the Greenmarket and illustrating the link to farmers, farmland preservation, and healthier lifestyles. Materials courtesy of Barry Benepe, photograph by author.

RTI: Are there any experiences or collaborations during your work as an architect and an urban planner that influenced the idea for the Greenmarket?

BB: One of the things I worked on was an open space plan in Livingston Manor in the Town of Rockland. I developed an open space plan which for the first time, I think, in planning in those days looked at the land physically. I mapped the land in terms of contours, steepness of slopes, and existing trails. I saw the landscape as sculpture rather than a place to just put down buildings.

Later on, I also worked as a planner at the Planning Department in Newcastle Upon Tyne in England. I was hired because as an American they thought I would be good for planning highways and shopping centers, which I had no interest in. The first thing I noticed was that many of the people who shopped in Newcastle walked into the city, so they agreed to let me hire their engineering staff to survey walkers to find out where they were coming from and where they were going to. In other words, to do an origin-destination study of walkers, which nobody ever did – everyone did it for cars and never pedestrians. I determined where they came from, where they went, and how they chose their routes for walking.

Our office was in a place called Bigg Market, “bigg” is a word for grain so “Grain Market,” and both the market hall and the Municipal Hall were across the street. Grainger Market was also there – a great large market hall established in 1835 – and all food and goods were sold under one big glass roof. Newcastle was the only piece of England not assigned to a Duke. That’s why it’s not Northumberland. The land was assigned to freemen who did not respond to the Duke, but directly to the King and the King gave title to freemen to own property and they owned the Town Moor and that ownership was extended from father to son. It was not sellable; it could not be put on the market so the land owned by the freemen would remain in the public domain forever. The Town Moor was used for pasture for the cattle and was still used that way when I went there. We lived right across the Moor.

RTI: Looking at the Greenmarket today, is there anything you would like to change?

BB: Nothing. Just being able to serve and meet the needs of as many people as possible.

RTI: Your groundbreaking work has been recognized through several important awards throughout the years, including, in 2006, the 23rd Annual Doris C. Freedman Award, which recognizes an individual or organization for “a contribution to the people of the City of New York that greatly enriches the public environment” and, in 2007, the Jane Jacobs Medal for Lifetime Leadership. What are some moments you found most rewarding during your time as Director of Greenmarket?

BB: Not necessarily moments as much as the outstanding characteristics of the market. Mostly, the smell and touch of fresh vegetables and fruits. It’s unbeatable!

RTI: Thank you so much for sharing the remarkable story of Greenmarket with us. Today, 43 years after the first Greenmarket was created, not only do we have more than 50 Greenmarkets, which are part of a vibrant network of more than 140 farmers markets across the city, but next year GrowNYC is about to open a new regional food hub to connect multiple farmers to the city’s institutions. In fact, New York is laying the ground to the next chapter in rebuilding the region’s foodshed infrastructure and putting the well-being of farmers and urban residents at the center of our food system. Thank you for creating the space for this work.