The President’s Own Tomato Patch

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

As co-director of FRESHFARM Markets, Bernadine Prince has 11 years of experience setting up farmer's markets in the D.C. metro area. FRESHFARM just received a permit to open a farmers market blocks from the White House.

The market is the latest in a series of White House-sponsored efforts to push local, fresh food. The first lady broke ground on a White House garden back in March, and the Department of Agriculture released a memo near the end of August outlining its plans to increase support for regional food systems.


The market, which opens today, will be located on Vermont Avenue between H and I Streets in Northwest Washington, and will run from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursdays, with 18 local farmers selling everything from celery root to cheese. The Root caught up with Prince to talk about the new market.

The Root: When did you get started organizing the Vermont Avenue market?

Bernadine Prince: Around the first of August. Our contact at the White House has been [White House assistant chef] Sam Kass. There is so much—there is the White House garden and the initiatives around local food. You've heard both the president and the first lady talk about the importance of healthy eating. They are models themselves by paying attention to their children's diet.

TR: Did the White House come to you with the idea?

BP: They knew about FRESHFARM Markets—we've been around since 1997, when we started the DuPont market. Sam Kass came to us. They thought their food initiatives should also include a farmers market.


TR: Did the permit process go faster with their support?

BP: I don't think so. They came to us, and said, ‘What can you do?’ We did our usual thing, going into the community to build support for the market. The permitting process takes a while—you have to get approval from the businesses that line the street, in this case, the Veterans Administration and the Export Import Bank. And then [D.C.'s neighborhood councils], in this case, two [Advisory Neighborhoods Councils], since Vermont Avenue is the dividing line between two districts and the Department of Transportation.


Maybe I'm being a little naïve, but I think [our success was] mostly because it's a good idea.

TR: Why is the market located in downtown D.C., among office buildings, if the point is to bring good food into communities?


BP: What we understand is that there are about 2,500 federal employees down there.

This market is trying to serve the commuter population. That area has a lot of federal agencies. And there are offices, like the Bureau of Land Management, where there is a shift split—workers start at 7 a.m. and leave their offices at 3 p.m.


We're not interested in the tourist population; they may come and say, "This is nice," and take a peach or an apple, but they aren't going to take a peck of tomatoes home and roast them.

We've gotten a lot of inquiries from other agencies, like the EPA, asking for us to have a market down there. This is a trial; we'll see how it goes. It's not a permanent market—we'll have to reapply for permits again next year.


TR: So should farmers start setting up markets where people work?

BP: Yes, it's about getting healthy food into all venues. There are a lot of businesses interested in doing a market in the workplace—we've been contacted by law firms, and office complexes out in Virginia. But not just markets—we've also been contacted about setting up a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture—where individuals sign up to receive a weekly box of produce from a farm], so that vegetables are there every day; their employees can count on it.


TR: Isn't there a history of markets near the White House?

BP: I believe during [Thomas] Jefferson's time there was a market in the Pennsylvania Avenue area. The bigger market down there was the Central Market, which was in the area of the National Archives. It was built in 1801. It was huge—open every day, and trucks came in from all over the region. You could get everything from a live chicken to milk.


There is a tradition of having farmers markets front and center in our city.

TR: Why farmers markets? Why the focus on regional food?

BP: First of all, it's saving America's farmers and farmland. This is where you are seeing the growth in farm[ing]; you're seeing new farmers being attracted to agriculture. And you've also seen a change in practices. People who are looking into raising animals now are looking into raising them compassionately, grass-fed, free-range. You're talking about a shift in farming with this generation that's very interested in where food comes from and how it tastes.


To me, there's a revolution going on.

Phoebe Connelly is a writer based in Washington, D.C., and the Web editor of the American Prospect.

Share This Story