MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Right around now, it is prime time for the region's farmers' markets. But recently, we've seen some new kinds of farmers' markets come to town made up of unofficial, unlicensed and uncertified food vendors. Supporters say these underground markets give fledgling vendors a shot at reaching hungry customers. But how do you know the food you buy in one of these so-called grey markets is safe? WAMU's Kavitha Cardoza talked with a bunch of the players involved and is here now with the inside scoop. Hi, Kavitha.
MS. KAVITHA CARDOZA
So the force behind this whole idea is an organization known as Grey D.C. Can you tell us a bit about them?
Well, basically, it is part of the buy-local movement. All of the vendors make their own food, but none have the permits or licenses required to sell food. This is Maya Robinson who is an accountant with the federal government who started the group in the district.
MS. MAYA ROBINSON
Grey D.C. is an organization that supports an underground farmer's market and it's about alternative markets, not necessarily the black market, but grey means alternative and different.
Robinson says she spent six years in Puerto Rico as a child and saw you could buy high-quality local food directly from vendors. And then, she read about the San Francisco underground farmer's market which operates on similar lines.
She also says this creates jobs because it acts as an incubator for local businesses. When she started, Rebecca, there were ten vendors and the second time they had an event there were 25 so there clearly is demand for this.
Right, right. And you had the opportunity to meet some of these vendors, I understand. What kinds of food are they selling at the Grey Market?
I spoke with Seth Cooper who is one of the owners of White House Meats. He's licensed to sell raw meat and he has these events called meat-ups...
Wait, wait. Meat as in M-E-A-T?
Um-hum, where he brings, say, an entire steer and people sign up for different cuts and he talks about where the meat is from and how to cook it. His meat comes from three farms in the area. What he isn't licensed for is the cooked meat he sells at Grey D.C., but he says he's trying to expand his business.
MR. SETH COOPER
As we're learning to make sausages and bacon in our own kitchens, the Grey Market was an opportunity for us to sell and give away some samples of some of that stuff. We had slices of bacon already cooked for a dollar a slice. We had a long line when we ran out and everyone was upset, because who doesn't want a slice of bacon for a dollar? So we did get good feedback. We know that we can make good products.
I also spoke with Rodney Mason who has been a fire fighter in the district for 19 years. His business is called Sweet Daisy's Cakes, after his mom who taught him how to bake when he was ten.
Okay, quick confession. I totally love cakes so kindly indulge me. What kind of cakes is Rodney making?
I knew you'd ask that, all kinds, carrot, chocolate, lemon, yogurt. He says the 24 hours on, 72 hours off schedule is very conducive to baking. He calls the experience with Grey D.C. really good exposure.
MR. RODNEY MASON
It's a lot of red tape in the city and it's just -- if you're not already established, it's hard to get your foot in the door.
This is someone who, like many other vendors, didn't know if there was even a market for his baking. And he says Grey D.C. helps him realize there is.
Okay, but all of this is making me wonder. I understand when people are starting out, maybe they just want to, you know, dip their toe in the water. But when you're established and you're selling out all your, you know, slices of bacon, why not just go to a regular farmer's market to sell your stuff?
Farmers' markets often require sellers have insurance and they say they can't spend the money if they aren't even sure there's enough demand. You also need a license for your kitchen. Then you need to take classes and apply for a food handling license which altogether could cost hundreds of dollars. Cooper shops at a farmer's market, but says there are reasons he sells at Grey D.C.
We didn't want to be outside at a farmer's market all day on Saturday. Also a lot of farmers' markets have restrictions on, it's, like, producer-only so only the farmers themselves can do it and we're kind of brokers. We're middle men, you know.
But I guess I have to ask now given all that. Is this stuff, the stuff that's being sold, is it safe to eat?
So the vendors say, of course it's safe to eat because they eat the same food and it's made in their kitchens. Of course, the folks at the health department say it's critical to have all these inspections so they know the food supply is safe. So some of the things they'd look at was, is the temperature right? Is the home free of roaches? Is the food being transported safely? Robert Sudler with the Food Safety Division at the D.C. Department of Health calls this a check and balance system.
MR. ROBERT SUDLER
If we had a facility that we knew about and we inspected and we got a report of one illness, we would be able to stop any more potential illnesses by identifying the source of the problem. Now if there's a home that's producing food, it will take us longer to identify the source of the problem and thus you could have many more illnesses associated with the consumption of some bad food.
So wait, Kavitha, are these Grey Market vendors then essentially, are they breaking the law?
Well, departments that regulate them in the district say they are. Health officials want to guard against serious illnesses, such as salmonella, E. coli, listeria. Sudler says businesses without a license can be warned and then eventually get a fine of up to $500. Grey D.C. says it gets around this by saying it's a private club and the entry fee is actually a membership. When you enter the market everyone signs a waiver before they eat the food. It's interesting. Both sides say it's about accountability.
So given the whole unofficial nature of the Grey Market, do we know when the next event will be in D.C.?
Well the irony is this underground movement is becoming really big and more established so it's outgrown its two previous venues. But as they're searching for another venue, they can't really find one because they're unofficial and underground.
Well, Kavitha, as always, it's a pleasure talking with you here on "Metro Connection." Thanks so much for coming on the show.
To learn more about Grey D.C. and the world of alternative farmer's markets, check out our website, metroconnection.org.
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