White tents dot the gently sloping lot. A couple releases one another’s hands, reminding each other to “Grab the tomatoes!” and “Don’t forget the eggplant!” as they part. An older woman removes her helmet and asks, “Still alright to leave my bike here?” to a teen volunteer at the Information Booth. A man in a suit runs by balancing four crates of softball-size peaches and a flat of deep red strawberries. Parents juggle canvas totes of groceries while wiping away popsicle remnants from their children’s cheeks. A band strums banjos and croon while groups huddle over woodfired pizza atop checkered tablecloths. Kids alternate between “Yuck”s and “Mmm”s as they taste first bites of Romanesco broccoli.
These are the simple, yet magic moments each Thursday as the Bellevue Farmers Market (BFM) nonprofit transforms the BelPres parking lot into a bustling marketplace. “People often think we’re run by the city,” Liz Paruchuru, Market Engagement Manager remarks, “but we aren’t. We’re grassroots, and we are the sum of many people’s energy and investment.”
Indeed, farmers markets in the Pacific Northwest are grounded in community power and activist roots, often with women leading the charge. Chris Curtis began the University District Market in Seattle in 1993, aiming to preserve regional farming and bring fresh produce to urban residents. Through her efforts and advocacy, Curtis ultimately founded Seattle Neighborhood Farmers Markets, focusing on access for customers using nutrition assistance programs and organizing grant opportunities for struggling farmers. “It’s female visionaries like Chris Curtis and Lori Taylor [who founded BFM in 2003] that inspire me, and I share their priorities when guiding our organization today,” says Paruchuru. Paruchuru joined the market in 2019 after working at Hopelink where she created partnerships with businesses to assist vulnerable families. “I spent a transformative period of my life apprenticing on a farm. And I have a strong belief that food heals. Quality food supports a healthy body, while shared meals can foster conversation and deeply connect families and communities. When I had the opportunity to combine these interests with my nonprofit skills, I jumped.”
Bellevue Farmers Market has only one other employee, Vivian Yang, Market Operations Manager. Throughout her childhood, Yang spent her days helping up front and mingling with customers at her family’s Chinese restaurant in North Bend. “The business brought me a sense of community,” she says. After 18 years, the restaurant closed. Yang recounts, “I wondered where I could find good food and that same feeling again. I saw BFM’s website, noticed an assistant manager job opening, and felt an immediate connection. I was so excited.” Over four years, Yang has developed deep relationships with vendors, customers, volunteers, and other area market teams. She transformed the nonprofit’s backend, creating easier processes for overburdened farmers and streamlining bookkeeping so efforts could focus on improving programming and customer experiences. Paruchuru adds, “Without Viv, there is no weekly event. She’s brought in a diverse array of vendors, from farmers to food trucks to tuna slingers and bread makers and vintners. She knows everyone, she knows what tastes good, and she is committed to our vendors’ success and our customers’ happiness.”
As a community organization, BFM thrives with the support of many volunteers, including a highly dedicated board. Brandy Eckman is a lifelong patron of markets, beginning with her Snohomish childhood. At BFM, she was pleased to find the freshest produce possible to support her canning hobby. Soon, Brandy was called to connect more deeply; as an advocate for education, she honed in on the market’s Power of Produce (POP) Club. Eckman grew the program into a staple experience, engaging children in learning activities about topics like sowing seeds and composting, along with challenges to taste seasonal produce, be it a blueberry or a cabbage leaf. In 2019, over 750 kids participated in the program. “POP Club’s been missed, so we are reinventing it for this season with take-home activity kits and digital add-ons. When it’s safe to be back in-person, it definitely will be,” says Paruchuru.
2020 highlighted both BFM’s vulnerabilities and its essential nature. Farmers and small food producers, already with tight margins, faced lost restaurant revenue and fewer in-person sale opportunities due to the pandemic and summer wildfires. BFM committed to staying open however possible, even when permitting hung in the balance due to rapidly changing health protocols and sponsorship dwindled as partners weathered their own financial uncertainty. The board’s president had to suddenly move, and Eckman not only quickly stepped into that role, but also became the on-site lead for BFM’s biggest innovation: online ordering and pre-order pickup. Each week, Eckman coordinated an army of volunteers (including many pairs of mothers and daughters from National Charity League’s Emerald City Chapter) to assemble curated boxes of produce and run orders between vendors and customers, most of whom stayed in their parked cars for a contactless exchange. It was a considerable effort, but emblematic of BFM’s core mission: support farmers and feed Bellevue residents. Many patrons also reported that BFM was the one public place they felt safe, thanks to the open-air nature of the market and strict adherence to safety guidelines.
Bellevue Farmers Market is the only market on the Eastside to accept EBT (the electronic payment card for food benefits), while also administering the SNAP Market Match program which doubles the purchasing power of Bellevue neighbors most in need. Yang notes, “It’s a real win-win. Quality food gets in the hands of families who may not otherwise be able to afford it and more dollars get to farmers.”
And when regional farmers are successful, there are powerful outcomes. First, money stays in the local economy. Farmers shop locally, circulating it versus exporting it to Big Agriculture’s coffers. Additionally, farms remain solvent, which is critical for the environment. Paruchuru reminds, “This is a chapter of prosperity for our region. It’s necessary that we create more housing and business developments. But we must avoid reckless environmental change. We must preserve agricultural land.” Local farming practices contribute less to carbon emissions than mega operations, and food at BFM travels only an average of 74 miles versus 1500 miles at commercial retailers.
How can the community continue to support these efforts? “This really is an all-hands-on-deck venture, from fellow strategists to foot soldiers who work setup and breakdown. We need sponsors and donors to invest in us so we can keep feeding the hungry and educating kids. We need tech-savvy folks to advise our small business owners on improving their digital presence.” Paruchuru continues, “The biggest impact is when you shop the market. Get to know our vendors, taste their awesome food produced with grit and love, and choose to spend your dollars here where it ripples out to create so much good. Truly, if you can only do one thing, do that.”
The 2021 regular season opens Thursday, May 13th from 3 - 7 PM and runs through October 7th. For more information, visit www.bellevuefarmersmarket.org.