Generations of Food, Family and Friends Under the Overpass
Ask 21-year-old Amy Espinoza how long she’s been working at the Sacramento Central Farmer’s Market, and she gives a surprising reply, “Since my mom was pregnant with me.”
All kidding aside, the college student has only been selling fruits and vegetables as a vendor with the Newcastle-based Twin Peaks Orchards for about two years, but she’s following in her mother’s footsteps while pursuing an anthropology degree. Mom Magda, also employed by Twin Peaks, has worked in the farming industry for over 30 years.
The Espinoza’s story is like the stories of dozens of other farmers and vendors who set up stands in the state parking lot located under the W-X Freeway overpass. On any given Sunday, you can find generations of farm workers selling an array of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats, eggs, flowers and more to the thousands of shoppers who bustle in and out of what has become one of the largest farmer’s markets in all of California.
From 8 til noon, the market is a whirl of noise and crowds, although you will catch some shoppers pausing to look up at the underpass’s recent $150,000 face lift. Dubbed the “Bright Underbelly,” the 70,000 square-foot mural of blue sky and trees represents the changing seasons of the year-round market.
During peak summer months, the market boasts more than 120 stands spread throughout the cement lot. Although some stands are manned by hired workers like the Espinoza’s, others are staffed by the farmers themselves.
At the McCormack stand, farmer Jeff McCormack and his sister Jane Dolcini represent the fifth generation of the over 100-year-old Walnut Grove business. Depending on the season, they sell cherries and grapes, but what they’re really known for is their more than 10 varieties of pears, Dolcini says. McCormack pears offer tangy and spicy flavors absent from most supermarkets. And unlike grocery-store pears which may have been picked green, McCormack’s juicy pears offer instant gratification. “You can just take our fruit home and eat it that night. You never have to wait for it to ripen,” Dolcini adds.
That combination of quality and quantity ready-to-eat food is what draws crowds from well beyond the Southside Park neighborhood, including shoppers who have smaller farmer’s markets closer to home.
Midtown resident Tracy Prybyla is one such example. Prybyla has shopped at the Central Farmer’s Market nearly every week for the past three years. Although she lists limiting her carbon footprint as one reason for buying locally grown, a stronger motivation drives her to the busy underpass at 8 a.m. “The food just tastes way better because it’s so fresh,” she says. “I can’t stand food that’s out of season anymore.”
Plus, most of the food lasts longer, Prybyla says. “If I buy a head of lettuce and forget about it in the back of the fridge, it’s still going to be good in two weeks because it wasn’t sitting on a truck for days before it made it to the grocery store.”
Prybyla is such a fan of the Sunday market that she shows it off to her out-of-town friends. “My friends from Portland are jealous of what we have here in Sacramento,” she says. “It’s one of the reasons I never want to move.”
Enthusiastic feedback like Prybyla’s is one of the best parts of the job for many of the vendors at the market.
“Hearing, ‘That was the best tomato I ate ever ate’ is just so gratifying,” says farmer Heidi Watanabe of Watanabe Farms, a 70-year-old family business in West Sacramento. Watanabe, who also sells direct to restaurants, including the esteemed Ella and The Kitchen, adds, “We’ve been selling at this market for about 12 years, and have had repeat customers since Day 1.”
That personal relationship between vendor and shopper, as well as among the vendors themselves, is echoed by Dolcini and Espinoza. Dolcini has worked her family’s McCormack stand for about 10 years at the Sunday market. She counts the vendors on either side of her as “like family.” They share homemade breakfast foods as they set up in the morning and enjoy people watching in the crowd when they’re not busy tending to customers.
When lines are short and time allows, most vendors and farmers are happy to chat with customers and play the role of educators. At the Premier Mushrooms stand, Theresa Pyne describes how her cremini mushrooms are produced without pesticides at her aunt and uncle’s farm in Colusa. At the King Salmon stand, vendor Justin Middleton answers questions about the where (Alaska), how (wild) and when (Friday) the $2-per-pound halibut was caught.
“I’ve gotten to know so many of my customers like family,” Espinoza says. “I’m not just here to sell. I’m here to give advice and teach,” she explains. “As an anthropology major, I see food as a cultural part of everyday life. It’s important to know where it comes from and how it’s produced.”
As an added bonus to working at the farmer’s market, Espinoza says she enjoys introducing people to new foods. “I get to be the person who gives someone their first nectarine. It’s a great feeling. I make a difference in people’s lives.”