Laura Avery

Laura Avery remembers watching children beg for sweet Nantes carrots and customers eagerly inquiring about when a beloved macadamia nut farmer would return to the Santa Monica Farmers Markets.

When Avery started managing the market 36 years ago, most home cooks didn’t buy heirloom tomatoes or kale. The vast majority of California farmers grew identical fruits and vegetables to load into crates and ship to warehouses. One of the first farmers Avery met made a mere $0.50 for every crate of iceberg lettuce he packed.

Since then, Avery and others like her have transformed how Californians think about food and where it comes from, fostering a sense of community around buying produce that just didn’t exist before. The market presented opportunities to educate consumers from the start – when kiwis first showed up on the stands, she testified to their tastiness when people assumed they were moldy potatoes.

Avery announced late last month that she will retire at the end of the year. The market is recruiting a new manager until Nov. 28.

Farmers markets have revolutionized how farmers run their businesses. By selling directly to customers at the market, the farmer Avery met could earn the amount per head of lettuce that he previously made per crate. Today, though, farmers are selling a greater assortment of produce than iceberg lettuce, and Avery said they take pleasure in developing new varieties of vegetables and fruits for customers to try.

Farmers markets have proliferated in Los Angeles County since she began her tenure. Many operate for profit and host more restaurant and retail booths than they do produce stands. Avery has been resolute in keeping the market close to its roots.

“We don’t load it up with prepared food and crafts,” she said. “If you’re selling kettle corn, you can’t smell the basil.”

Customers do indeed flock to smell the basil. Thousands attend the markets, which are held four times per week: two downtown on Wednesdays and Saturdays, one in the Pico neighborhood on Saturdays and another in Ocean Park on Sundays.

When Avery started managing the market, there were only 23 farmers. She got to know every single one and made sure they sold well. That required a careful balancing act between ensuring there were enough farmers selling popular fruits and vegetables without the market with too much of the same thing.

“We measure our success in if our farmers are doing well,” she said.

Now, about 130 farmers come to the four markets each week.

Gloria Tamai of Tamai Family Farms, which has been a part of the market for almost 40 years, sells produce at dozens of farmers markets in Southern California. Avery’s departure marks the end of an era for Tamai, whose two daughters have grown up among the bustling produce stalls lining Arizona Avenue.

Avery has always tried to create more sales opportunities for farmers, Tamai said, such as allowing produce companies to buy their produce and resell it to restaurants.

“She cares about the farmers,” Tamai said. “I hope the new manager follows her lead.”

Avery may focus on the details – she will eagerly tell visitors about a new crop of Brussels sprouts or an icy drink made from fresh strawberries – but she has always had an expansive vision for the market, treating it as a jumping-off point for education and social justice work.

Long before national figures like Michelle Obama started pushing for healthier options in school cafeterias, Avery went to schools in Santa Monica and Malibu and realized local schoolchildren were being raised on frozen pizza and chicken nuggets. She was appalled.

Working with the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District and the City of Santa Monica, she sought out a grant and installed a salad bar featuring seasonal produce from the market at a local elementary school in 1997. It was an instant hit with students, and within four years, every school in the district had a salad bar.

The program has since dissolved because of a change in SMMUSD leadership, Avery said, but the market still works closely with schools to teach students about produce and nutrition. Visitors can often see groups of schoolchildren carrying their own small bags of produce around the market.

“Each kid gets a dollar coupon,” she said. “We’re teaching these little future consumers that they have the buying power, and they can buy what they want.”

Even as chefs from Gjelina, Lucques and other gourmet restaurants became regulars at the market, Avery ensured it remained accessible to all. Customers can use CalFresh and WIC benefits at the market, and people receiving CalFresh and different types of Social Security benefits receive $10 to spend on produce for every $5 they spend at the market through Hunger Action LA’s Market Match program.

For Avery, the market is a place where she and the many organizations she collaborates with can experiment with different ways of achieving the same goals: teaching people about healthy, sustainable food and making sure they can access it.

“What I pride myself on is being a vector for people’s good ideas,” she said. “Every idea passes through the farmers market.”

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2 Comments

  1. “…which are held four times per week: two downtown on Wednesdays, one in the Pico neighborhood on Saturdays and another in Ocean Park on Sundays”
    I should think you might want to steer readers correctly to the market locations and days. “Two are held downtown on Wednesday”? Really?
    Maybe try: “In downtown two are held on Arizona Ave, around 3rd Street: one one Wednesdays, the other on Saturdays. Also on Saturday, a market is held in Virginia Ave Park. A fourth is held on Sunday in Heritage Square on Main Street.”
    That might at least give the poor farmers a chance.

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