July 6, 2007 — -- Before the nation's obsession with healthy eating, before concerns about tainted food imports, before we used the word "organic" to describe food, one man saw the wisdom of going green.
And today, millions of people are better off because of that man -- Barry Benepe.
"My mouth waters just walking in here," he said as he shopped at one of the 44 farmers' markets to be found in New York City. "Zucchini, yellow summer squash … cherries … raspberries … wonderful greens. Spinach is in. Rhubarb is in. … New potatoes are in. Honey. It is hard to go home without lifting two heavy bags."
The markets -- also currently full of things like radishes, lemon basil, spring onions, fresh baked bread, snap peas, organic wine, just-laid eggs and wheels of cheese -- might not even be there were it not for him.
"As a planner, I was aware that we were losing farmland," Benepe said. "And as a consumer in New York City, I was also aware that the quality of our produce in the stores was notoriously bad."
New York City had farmers' markets throughout its history. But with the growth of the supermarket, they died out in the 1930s.
"If the farmer doesn't make money, he won't farm," Benepe said. "So we had to make the farmer make money. That was our primary goal."
So in 1976, Benepe, an architect and planner, started a market on the city's East Side. It succeeded -- and begat other markets. So now, there are not only the 44 markets in the city, but an estimated 30,000 acres of local farmland that has stayed farmland. And in the pricey New York suburbs, some of those acres can be worth $1 million each.
"In the meantime, the public was going to benefit in two ways," Benepe said. "One is they're going to have good food at reasonable prices, cutting out the middleman. … Two, it transformed dead spaces to living spaces."
When Benepe opened the first New York green market, there were only a handful of markets around the country. But today, there are almost 4,400, and last year greenmarkets had a billion dollars in sales.
"I'm glad we rediscovered something that's been around in our cities for hundreds of years," Benepe said. "To move ahead, you have to look behind and seize on the best we've done, and don't waste our experience -- use our experience and our good sense of what's right."
The Rockefeller Foundation agreed. Benepe has been awarded the inaugural Jane Jacobs Medal for a lifetime of leadership in urban planning.
"When we stop and walk through this farm stand, we are walking through a community of people, not a community of cars," Benepe said. "And this is the way cities have to be experienced -- on foot. And it redefines our city as a place to live and enjoy life!"