Marin Farmers Market gets $2M seed money toward permanent home

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When the California lawmakers approved the nearly $215 billion budget on June 13, it included $2 million to help fund a permanent structure for the Marin Farmers Market.

The news garnered mixed reviews on social media, including grumblings as to why a farmers market would even qualify for government funding. After all, there are more than 700 certified farmers markets in the state.

It’s a different story in Marin County. In June 2014, 81% of voters gave the thumbs up to Measure B, which proposed a permanent home for the local farmers market currently residing on the Marin Civic Center campus. The measure did not specify how the building would be paid for.

Now, work is underway on the project that will permanently house and broaden the scope of the Marin Farmers Market, rebranded as the Center for Food and Agriculture, according to Andy Naja-Riese, CEO of the Agricultural Institute of Marin (AIM), a 501(c)3 nonprofit that operates seven farmers markets in the Bay Area, including the flagship Marin Farmers Market at the Marin Civic Center.

Naja-Riese doesn’t yet have an official estimate as to how much it will cost to build the structure, but the $2 million will help start the design process.

The permanent structure is slated to be built from the ground up on county land within a stone’s throw of the current farmers market at the Marin Civic Center, he said. As such, the project is a public-private partnership between AIM and the county of Marin.

“The Center for Food and Agriculture is projected to house up to 250 California farmers and small businesses, rotating seasonally from over 40 counties who will have more opportunities for direct-to-consumer sales to over 1 million shoppers per year,” Naja-Riese said.

That data translates to an additional $56.8 million in local food sales, he added.

“Growers who sell locally create 13 full-time jobs per $1 million in revenue earned, and we estimate the project will create at least 168 new jobs annually,” Naja-Riese said. “We anticipate an additional $105 million annually in economic stimulus as a result of the project.”

And there is something else at the root of Naja-Riese’s vision for the project.

“What we’re doing is creating space for education and access to high-quality foods at the farmers market,” said Naja-Riese, who took the helm at AIM a year ago. “The Center for Food and Agriculture will feature a year-round farmers market and sustainably designed community gathering space ... for people around the Bay Area.”

He is working closely on the project with Gabriella Calicchio, the county’s director of cultural services.

“The work that they are doing now, increasing their mission to really serve people that are food-insecure, is really about education and addressing the food insecurities in our community,” Calicchio said.

She noted that the average Marin County household net assets are $1.4 million, yet one in four children qualify for school lunch.

“The numbers are pretty astounding, considering we are one of the wealthiest counties in the country. The inequity is huge… so there’s a lot (Naja-Riese and his team) are doing to make this more than a place where people with money in their pocket can go buy food directly from a farmer,” Calicchio said.

In October, armed with his vision and supporting data, Naja-Riese traveled to Sacramento to meet with state Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-Greenbrae, to discuss the project and the positive economic impact it could generate.

“We went through a process and worked with Levine, who submitted a budget letter on our behalf to the Assembly,” Naja-Riese said, adding that state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, also was on board.

Naja-Riese also launched a letter-writing campaign between February and April of this year, and secured over 100 signatures from stakeholders in more than 22 counties.

It all worked.

“Levine called me and said that our $2 million request made it into the budget, and that the budget was passed,” Naja-Riese said, calling the funds an “incredible amount.”

All told, Naja-Riese is projecting the new center will debut in three to four years.

And now, the final approval for the project’s government funds is in the hands of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has to sign or veto the budget before the new fiscal year starts on July 1. With big issues such as immigration, health care and taxes on the line, Naja-Riese is confident his funding won’t be problematic.

“It’s been an exciting time for us,” he said. “For us, it’s about the magnitude of our impact and also how we weave education and food access into all of our work.”

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