Oakland has one, and so does Atlanta, and DC. And more seem to be sprouting up: DIY food markets that bypass the usual licensing restrictions, which–in this economy–present an impossible hurdle for some folks who just don’t have the money for liability insurance, health and safety permits, farmers market membership fees, commercial kitchen use, and vendor space rental.
How can the underground market do this legally? By making you, the buyer, part of a circle of friends–in other words, a free member (although you may be charged a minimal fee to enter the market) entering a private event.
Iso Rabins of Forage SF (now in Oakland/East Bay) started the San Francisco Underground Market, but the city shut it down because it became too big; the city’s shutdown of the market raises questions about the distinction between “private” and “public” events.
Rabins explains the situation experienced by many talented but financially challenged chefs and food vendors:
To sell at a farmers market, you need to produce your wares in a commercial kitchen. This is an impossible expense for many of us, so the underground farmers market is about helping to get some exposure for all of our fellow producers without the cash for a commercial kitchen.
These are veterans, people who’ve been making their products for years, but only able to share them with friends. We thought we’d give them a venue to share with the whole SF food community. If you are interested in becoming a vendor, click here to read more.
A market, and a live show, all rolled into one. Think a farmers market, but at night, with music and drinks.
They’ve been called “Food Raves” and even “Craves.” As a recent New York Times article notes, it works best if you are a local, and know your city’s nooks and crannies. Because the underground doesn’t happen out in the open.
This is not your traditional “black market,” venues that go around governmental restrictions with the intent to make money without consideration of larger social issues—where you can buy anything from candy to pesticides and nuclear arms. The DIY underground food market operates in a “grey” area that is concerned with giving a hand up to vendors. Grey DC doesn’t just organize underground markets; advocates of local, sustainable food, they describe themselves as “a small business incubator that provides opportunities for local entrepreneurs who lack the financial capital needed to test the market” and they give grants to be used for certification costs.
Good intent does not, of course, guarantee safety in food consumption, so customers are taking a chance. Does supporting local, sustainable food, and local chefs and vendors justify the risk of eating food that hasn’t been prepared in a certified kitchen? You have to decide for yourself.
The DIY movement is fascinating to me, personally, because it reminds me of a popular word used in the Philippines, abilidad (from the Spanish “habilidad”), referring to a kind of skilled resourcefulness among those lacking in capital to somehow make something useful out of available materials. I’m reminded of an article written recently “Recycling: Light from a Soda Bottle,” by LolaKo.
DIY is already being utilized commercially, in the “certified” and “licensed” sense of those who have money to capitalize on it. But DIY is also a political movement with revolutionary implications.
In a society–indeed a world–where lack of capital consigns many unfairly to the category of “losers” and can mean the difference between success and failure or life and death, abilidad, and DIY, especially when combined with insight and a larger vision, can seem like a little miracle.