Notes from the DIY Food Revolution

By Iso Rabins

Twittering food carts, underground dinners, new kinds of under-the-radar food markets: There's a DIY food revolution happening on the quasi-legal fringes of major American cities. One of the leaders of the movement is Iso Rabins. He hosts underground dinners in San Francisco through his organization forageSF (each course focusing on wild ingredients like nettles and snails). And, in December, Rabins launched the city's first underground farmers' market, held in a friend's flat. Rabins will be guest blogging on CHOW.com, and this is his first post.

The SF Underground Market is the realization of an idea I had in early December while driving across the Bay Bridge. I know all these people who make things: sauerkraut, kombucha, soap, pies, beef jerky, homegrown veggies. Many had dreams of starting a small business with their creations, but lacked the resources. It costs a lot to start a food business. There's the business license ($50), the health department certification ($250), commercial kitchen rental ($75 per hour), liability insurance ($60 per month). If you want to sell at a farmers' market, there’s the added expense of a per week vendor fee ($75). And that's just to sell at a local level.

Eggs at SF Underground Farmers MarketMy idea was to create a space for these people at a market that would be at night, and be free to enter, with the bonus of live music and workshops where people could learn to make the products they were buying.

So it's not exactly legal. At my first market, I ran into some problems with the SF Department of Health. They were tipped off by a “concerned citizen” because many of the market's vendors aren't licensed and don't work out of commercial kitchens. I was told that if I wanted to do this again in the future (and stay out of jail) that I should reclassify it as a private club, and then the health department could ignore me. Now if you want to come to the market, you need to sign up for a free membership online.

I'm not aiming to bash the well-meaning attempts of government to protect our food supply. The problem is we’ve gotten to the point where only someone with a significant amount of cash can afford these costs, and lately there are fewer and fewer of us that fit into that category. The end result is a food system dominated by corporate titans whose concerns for safety and quality stop at exactly the point where their profit will be impinged. The reality is, these regulations don’t even seem to protect us.

When a single burger can contain meat from thousands of different cows, all grown in separate cramped feedlots around the globe, how can we possibly expect accountability? There's an entirely different type of accountability at the market: there's trust that's created when you look a producer straight in the eye.

underground marketThe second market was a big success: 23 vendors sold everything from sauerkraut to beef jerky, corned beef sandwiches to backyard eggs. Beatbeat Whisper from Oakland provided tunes, while 1,000 shoppers tried to move around in a space meant for 300.

At the market, I cooked up a boar osso bucco served over buttery mashed potatoes. People smelled that as they walked in, and you could overhear the chatter of people talking about what they'd made. "This is the best sarsaparilla I've ever had," and, "Legally, you can have four chickens in your backyard in San Francisco, but they need to be 20 feet from a door," and, "For this jam, I collected apples from backyard trees in Berkeley." There was a line of people waiting outside for an hour and a half to get in.

Yes, those 1,000 people showed up at the market to buy things. But the real reason they waited so long to get a corned beef sandwich or a jar of jam was their desire to be part of something that they can feel good about supporting. Everything that was sold at the market has a lookalike that you can buy at any corner store, and for less money. What was different here was the satisfaction of helping someone in their community do something they love.

The 3rd SF Underground Market will be on Saturday, March 6, at 9 Langton Street in San Francisco's SOMA district. See the forageSF website for details.