Almost any day of the week, a farmers’ market can be found in Marin. As it turns out, an average of 18,000 weekly visitors attend one or more of the Agricultural Institute of Marin's seven Bay Area Certified Farmers’ Markets during peak season, and more than 1 million visit them annually. With roughly 400 vendors total — about 200 farmers, 120 food purveyors and 80 artisans rotating through — this is big business. It’s made possible through the efforts of AIM (Agricultural Institute of Marin), which manages the markets. AIM’s prior executive director, Brigitte Moran, retired recently after 14 years, and after a widespread search, a new CEO is taking the lead: Andy Naja-Riese.
1) What inspired you to take on this job? One of my biggest passions is to ensure all people have access to nutritious foods and can thrive in a healthy, economically vibrant community. When an unexpected opportunity arose to lead a Bay Area nonprofit that combines my excitement for farmers’ markets, agricultural education and supporting local food economies, I jumped at it.
2) How did you become interested in community agriculture programs? As the former chief of program integrity for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program with the USDA Western Region, I had the opportunity to work with and travel to a variety of agricultural communities across eight Western states, plus the territory of Guam and Indian tribal organizations. Connecting agricultural producers directly with shoppers in farmers’ markets and food gardens is one of the most powerful ways to boost local economies. Every dollar of sale at farmers’ markets generates twice as much economic activity within the region.
3) You call yourself a compassionate public servant. Can you elaborate? My career is less about me and more about the people and communities served. I see farmers’ markets and community agriculture as an important strategy for addressing food insecurity, along with services provided by partners, such as the SF-Marin Food Bank. That’s why I’m especially excited about AIM’s planned mobile market to provide food access in low-income communities.
4) What is your favorite farmers’ market location? I’ve been a longtime shopper at AIM’s Sunday San Rafael Civic Center market because of its robust variety of farmfresh produce, and I’ve made connections with farmers. You can pretty much find anything you want; plus the backdrop of the Civic Center and landscape paint the most beautiful shopping experience. I think the most underappreciated farmers’ market is the seasonal downtown Thursday night market in San Rafael.
5) Your ultimate vision for AIM? My vision encompasses building a permanent farmers’ market and diversifying AIM’s mix of markets, outreach and education. The Sunday Civic Center Farmers’ Market is the third largest such market in California, and there’s no question it needs a permanent home. Working with our board of directors, I will explore creating a Bay Area Food and Education Hub with a permanent farmers’ market, a garden kitchen where you can learn to cook what you harvest, and a business incubator to help beginning farmers, ranchers and artisan food makers to kick-start their operations.
6) What does the future hold for the proposed Market Hall and Canopy project near the Civic Center? AIM is in the process of engaging with the stakeholder community on the project. In May 2017, AIM signed an updated memorandum of understanding with the Marin County Board of Supervisors to delineate roles and responsibilities in the planning of the permanent farmers’ market on the vacant lot, otherwise known as the Christmas tree lot. I’m joining AIM at a pivotal time to reinvigorate our public-private partnership.
7) Do you grow food at home? Where I live in San Rafael’s Sun Valley neighborhood, the amount of direct sunlight makes growing food at home a real pleasure. I maintain a small vegetable garden, growing tomatoes, potatoes, peas, herbs, cucumbers, beans and kale. I’ve also built strawberry towers out of upcycled file bins. While the harvest is small, the food seems to just taste better when it’s homegrown.
8) What is your favorite thing to get at the farmers’ market? I love a bagel with cream cheese, tomato, onion, lox and capers; it hits all the food groups in the most delicious ways.