Our Mission and History
City Greens market began in 2008 in the basement of the St. Cronan Catholic school building. A group of women from our neighborhood who called themselves the “Midtown Mamas” were discussing the difficulty of getting to the nearest grocery stores, and how expensive the food was, even though it wasn't organic and came from far away. Many of these women had moved to St. Louis from the rural South, and brought with them a vibrant culinary tradition that valued cooking with fresh vegetables and creating well-rounded, healthy meals. Since moving to an economically depressed urban environment, they saw that their culinary tradition was becoming lost due to lack of availability of produce and the abundance of cheap, unhealthy, junk food. They could see an obvious link between the high rate of health problems in their community and the lack of healthy food options.
Their first attempt at fixing this problem was to organize a CSA program with Gateway Greening, a local organization that coordinates and supports community gardens. With a grant from St. Louis Catholic Charities, they were able to make $30 CSA boxes available for just $3.50 to around 30 families in the neighborhood. Although everyone appreciated the fresh produce they got every month, once the subsidy ran out and the Mamas reevaluated the project, they found ways to make it more effective. For one, many of the families receiving the CSA boxes were not using all of the vegetables. The Mamas realized that getting people to eat healthy would take more than just making the food available. Many of these families were not in the habit of cooking meals every day, and many were somewhat overwhelmed by the random assortment of vegetables, some of which they simply didn't know how to use. On top of that, once the grant ran out and the price of the boxes went up, all of the families decided that it was too expensive to re-enroll.
It was at this point that the model we use today was born. The Mamas decided that it would be easier to help people develop better eating habits if they had more control over what they were purchasing; if they could pick exactly what vegetables they wanted to try and only buy what they needed for that day. They still wanted to make the food as affordable as possible, however, so they insisted on selling everything without making any profit. They then went to the Tower Grove Farmers Market and met Michelle Wagstaff, a farmer from Silex, Missouri who agreed to work with them to develop the new project. They discussed what kinds of vegetables would be popular in the community, and developed a plan to have fresh, chemical-free produce and fresh, free-range eggs delivered to the church basement every week. The Mamas would then go out into the community and invite their families, friends, and neighbors to meet in the basement, shop for fresh veggies, share recipes, cook samples together, and just have a good time; City Greens Market was born. They knew that the best way to make big lifestyle changes is to do it as a community – build friendships around healthy food and people would start eating healthier naturally. This is still the guiding principle of the market.
Although it was only open two days a week, the market was immediately popular, especially for the low-income folks in the neighborhood who would have to make at least 2 bus transfers in order to get to the nearest grocery store. The women recognized that making the food accessible was only one piece of the puzzle – people needed to be convinced that eating healthier is worthwhile, and also learn how to cook healthy meals. When the market was open, the Mamas would volunteer to prepare free samples; the smell of fresh food cooking when a shopper enters the market was one of the best enticements to better eating. Often, shoppers would say, “what’s that smell” and when they were told it was zucchini and squash they would say, “I don’t eat that!” When they would sample the prepared food, the same shopper would then ask, “Where is the recipe” and “Show me where I can find those vegetables”. Some notable favorites have been Ms. Bobbie's veggie wraps and Pauline's egg and potato breakfast casserole with smoked gouda cheese.
As more people started coming to the market, the Mamas started reaching out to other farmers and local food producers to expand what they had to offer. The Mamas knew that if they were serious about building a community centered on good, healthy food, the farmers and producers would need to be a part of that community. Most of the produce you can find at the Supermarkets around St. Louis sell food that is produced on massive, industrial, corporate farms that are thousands of miles away. These farms exist simply to generate money for investors, and are generally unconcerned with the environmental impact of these farms, the rights of the farmworkers, or even the quality of the food produced; they just want to make money. For decades these farms have been putting small, local farmers out of business, which has been very destructive to rural communities around St. Louis and the world. By getting to know the farmers who supplied the market, City Greens could ensure that their food was produced sustainably; that the farmers treat their workers right, care about the earth, love their livestock, and don't use chemicals that are dangerous to consume.
As the market continued to grow, St. Louis Catholic Charities decided to support the project by providing a staff person to coordinate our activities. Now that there were more significant overhead costs, the Mamas decided to adjust the model once again. The conventional business model for grocery stores is that the price of all items is marked up to cover overhead costs. This ignores the reality that some families are more capable of paying that markup than others. The Mamas came up with a better idea; sell all the food at the wholesale price, and cover overhead costs by charging a membership fee in order to shop at the market. This way they could ask wealthier families to contribute more, and keep the price of the food as low as possible for everyone.
Meanwhile, the Mamas started a community garden, organized cooking classes for children and adults, and took trips to visit the farms at the invitation of the farmers involved in the project. A few years later the market received a Skandalaris Grant from Washington University to purchase a food truck that would make the market mobile. The Mamas named it the Supa-Fresh Veggie Mobile, and it would park at various locations throughout Forest Park Southeast and adjacent neighborhoods.
In 2014, the Mamas were able to raise enough money to move the market into the storefront on Manchester where it is located today. Membership grew to more than 700 households, and the market continued to provide nutritional education through recipes, cooking classes, demonstrations and market developed cookbooks. In the spring of 2016, St. Francis Community Services (Midtown and the market's parent organization) decided to restructure its programing throughout the city due to budget constraints. Part of this restructuring included cutting City Greens from the organization's budget. Due to an overwhelming outpouring of support from the community, the City Greens staff and volunteers decided that the project had come to far to end there. We decided to incorporate City Greens Market as an independent non-profit organization and get the market up and running again.
Today City Greens Market remains a beautiful example of how a community of caring and dedicated women can work together to fight the injustice of food access inequality. We hope to inspire and empower other communities to take their food supply into their own hands like we have done. We envision a St. Louis in which every neighborhood across the city has its own community grocery store that supports local agriculture and tries to make good food affordable for everyone.