Run Don’t Walk: Farmer’s Market at Cunningham Park

On early Sunday mornings, Cunningham Park springs into action, with runners breathing heavily as they pound the pavement on their weekly 5K run. On the way to the finish line, they pass by a parking lot. What had once been a parking lot solely filled with cars has become a space littered with booths.  Starting at 9 am, various local vendors have begun to set up their tents, arrange their respective products, and get ready to receive customers. Soon, the parking lot closes off as more and more booths are set up, creating an enclosure of booths and vendors, each with their own unique ingredients and food products to sell. 

Customers walk around, leaning in close to smell the fragrance of sweet strawberries, while the colors of red tomatoes, green herbs, and all sorts of vegetables catch their eye. Alongside produce, fresh filet fish straight from the shores of Shinnecock, Montauk, or the inner Cape Cod area is sold; meanwhile, local farms sell cuts of meat ranging from eggs to steak to chicken feet. After walking around, shoppers can grab a bite with ready-to-eat beef or chicken empanadas, while freshly baked bread and strawberry scones tempt consumers through neat plastic packaging. Coming home from the farmers’ market, shoppers can utilize these ingredients, binding them together to create satisfying and nutrient-loaded homemade meals.

Down to Earth is a company dedicated to hosting farmer’s markets all around New York City in order to facilitate the exchange of seasonal and organic food products from small businesses to local residents. At their chain in Cunningham, hours last from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; at any time within that time frame, customers can come and explore the various seasonal produce, protein, ready-to-eat products, and treats for sale that week. 

“The holistic benefit of a farmer’s market helps a community like this by instead of bringing us apart, bringing us together,” Marketing Manager Kevin Sims said. “You know, we’re not just doing takeout, putting that on the table; we’re learning about the seafood that comes right off the shore from where we are here; we’re learning about why shrimp isn’t available here or why it is; we’re learning about oysters; we’re learning about seasonal vegetables,  seasonal fruits, and how all these things can play together.”

While perishable items such as strawberries “do not store well,” farmers work around this by selling them fresh or processing them into yogurts and jams. 

“The trick with strawberries is the smell,” Central Valley Farm vendor Braxton Lou said. “They’ll change every week depending upon the weather.  You can’t pick and put strawberries on a shelf and then sell them two weeks later; they don’t store well, so you have to sell them. When you pick them and sell them, you pick what you can sell.  You’re anticipating how much you’re going to be able to sell. If you have more in the fields than you think you can sell, then you get those processed [and] put in different products.”

Candice Ellison, a vendor for American Pride Seafood, values her company’s focus on freshness when it comes to seafood. 

“I guess the company’s [mission] would be sustainable, local products that we’re trying to bring to people,” Ellison said. “And then, my personal contribution, I just started with the company, and I liked his [Glenn, the owner of American Pride Seafood] mission. I liked the fact that he always had very fresh and amazing fish, and I just wanted to be a part of bringing that to people.”

“Freshness, I’d say that was the biggest thing,” Ellison continued. “Since it’s right from the boat, it’s not sitting in somebody’s filet shop, it’s not sitting in somebody’s truck, it’s not sitting in a supermarket. It’s right from the boat, fresh, directly to you guys.”

Sal Ammaturo, owner of Miss Molly’s Honeydrippers, states that the pure honey they sell comes from “specific flower sources,” producing “unique flavor profiles.”

“Amongst them are locust honey, [a] light springtime varietal, and then we have linden tree, goldenrod, and aster honey, which is quite different from a traditional blended honey that you would get in a supermarket,” Ammeter said. “We know that these honeys are unadulterated.  The adulteration of a lot of products, including honey, is actually renowned; people might put corn syrup or other not-so-good things into the honey to stretch it out.”

The personal aspect of farmers’ markets serves as a medium for social connection and food-related education. 

“Especially in car communities such as Cunningham Park, having the farmer’s market here not only gets people interacting with each other again, but they’re learning more about the things that they’re putting on the table,” Sims said. “They’re learning how to cook, learning how to understand ingredients.  These are things that don’t happen at typical grocery stores.”

Sims advocates for transparency regarding ingredients in food, asserting that “if we don’t know what we’re putting in our bodies, then we don’t have control over our bodies.”

“It can be subjective from person to person, but if you’ve got somebody who is gluten-free who has celiac, [or] certain people with other digestive health issues, knowing what they can eat and what they can’t eat, what triggers their symptoms, what doesn’t.  Understanding that element is so important for them to be able to live their lives to their fullest extent,” Sims said. “Being able to do that at the farmer’s market is straightforward. I can point towards any of these vendors, I know exactly what’s in their product; they tell me exactly what’s in it.” 

A prime example of transparency would be the openness of Dominique Moultrie or “Bunny,” the owner of Bunny’s Treats Vegan Bakery, towards the ingredients in her baked goods.

“Yes, it’s 100% a vegan bakery, so it’s super helpful for people who have allergies to dairy or eggs,” Bunny said. “I try to keep at least two gluten-free options, but I let people know that it is still made in the same facility, but I take care.  So, that’ll be the first thing I do, sanitize everything and then I’ll do my regular flour but I allow people to know that if you have severe allergies, they are made in the same place. I try to be as cautious as I can but I also want to have something for everybody.”

“Sometimes with a lot of businesses that have a vegan option, they’re just doing it for the quick dollar, so they don’t really care how it tastes, ” Bunny asserts.  “I have a lot of passion for what I do.  Even, with my gluten-free items, I don’t put out anything I don’t seriously believe in that is the best that I’ve had. I just want really good baked goods for everyone.”

As a result, customers who shop at Bunny’s Treats’ come to appreciate this straight-forward approach to sales. 

“She is displaying the kind of facilities she uses and how she keeps gluten allergens or other kinds of contaminants away from other stuff,” farmers market customer Kaiya (customer does not wish to publish her last name) said. “But if I order online or even at a normal grocery store, I just have to trust what the box says. You know, I can’t just talk to the person.”

On the other hand, farmers’ markets such as those hosted by Down to Earth support vendors as well, allowing them to “start here, build themselves, and gain that confidence so they can grow.” 

“The company cares about the community and the vendors,” Sims said. “Their biggest goal is to make sure that we support small businesses, particularly small food vendors, when it comes to farms, bakeries, or whatever the case may be. We want to help them accomplish, you know, the very classic ideas of the American dream: they have an idea, they have a product that they love, and they want to share it with people. We want to give them space to do that effectively.”

Customers elaborated on this idea, discussing how farmer’s markets allow local businesses to establish community-wide connections. 

“I think it’s great for local businesses and farms because it allows them to get a foothold in the community,” Kaiya said. “Even if people move away or can’t make it to the farmers’ market, they can connect with them on social media and now you still have that community connection.”

“They [vendor] get to not only make sales but get more word-of-mouth marketing,” Kaiya added.  “More recognition for the businesses and more trust if you hear it from a friend. You’re going to trust it more than if you just saw it on a billboard or saw it on an advertisement.”

Farmers’ markets benefit not only vendors by providing them with business opportunities but also customers by facilitating access to seasonal, fresh, and organic food in a transparent fashion. 

“This is a hard time when it comes to food because food is so convenient and corporations always have an interest in trying to undercut cost by introducing elements that are not actually nutritious,” Sims said. “Being able to look at the food you’re eating and decide for yourself, is this good for me today? Is this gonna’ keep me healthy? Is this gonna’ keep me safe in the long run? In short, you can do that at a farmer’s market in ways that you just can’t with a product at the grocery store.”