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Michelle Lee (right), brought her mom to help out at her booth, Umma's Kitchen.

Image: Ellie Sharp

Though Houston hosts myriad farmers' markets brimming with seasonal produce on a weekly basis, one such outlet has a true “season” of its own. The aptly named Urban Harvest City Hall Farmers Market, which welcomes customers every Wednesday in the spring and fall, kicked off its season earlier this week amidst cool and blustery weather.

“Farmers' markets have a host of benefits,” said Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, who attended the opening festivities along with several members of the City Council. “Perhaps most importantly is [that] farmers' markets increase access to fresh, locally grown foods, give consumers the opportunity to develop relationships with local growers and farmers, raise awareness about the food systems, and promote healthy eating habits.” 

The market, which attracts hundreds of shoppers during its midday schedule each week, offers a smorgasbord of diverse goodies for working professionals and downtown dwellers alike, including artisanal kimchi from Umma’s Kitchen, fruits and vegetables from Atkinson Farm, gourmet olive oil from Heart of Texas Olive Oil, vegan baked goods from Sinfull Bakery and much more.

“Urban Harvest is a nonprofit organization that has been privileged to have had a partnership with the city of Houston for the last six years putting on this particular farmers' market," said Scott Howard, president of the Urban Harvest Board of Directors. "The bottom line is Urban Harvest has promoted community gardening, school gardening, farmers' markets of course, and a lot of instruction on how to grow food locally... It’s very important to support the local economy. The dollars that are spent here stay in the local economy with these various vendors.” 

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Creamy Spicy Mash tamale from Guudbelly Vegan Tamales and Stuffs.

Image: Ellie Sharp

LaKaye Arroyo of Guudbelly Vegan Tamales and Stuffs is a testament to the success achieved through her business' presence at the City Hall location, having developed a loyal following there and later adding a presence at the Urban Harvest's Eastside market on Saturdays.

“It’s a completely different vibe,” Arroyo said of the difference between the locations. “Here, you have people who are coming for lunch and they’re just looking for a good meal so they can get out of the tunnel, which has a lot of fast food.”

Her tamales are a perfect encapsulation of market goodness composed of olive oil from Texas Hill Olive Co., potatoes and tomatoes from Gundermann Acres and carrots from Plant it Forward Farms. Arroyo adds that she sells out of tamales every week, often cooking more on site to replace those sold, and that her best customers are often omnivores looking to expand their palates and try something new. These converts often become regulars, purchasing their goods by the half or full dozen.

“Here, there’s a lot of exposure,” she added, in reference to the benefits of selling at this location. “People don’t know what to expect, they have absolutely no idea, they’ve never tried anything like this before and then they try it and their mind is just completely blown.”

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Suchi Raychaudhury sells her Calcutta Rolls at her first market.

Image: Ellie Sharp

Suchismita “Suchi” Raychaudhury, owner of Calcutta Rolls, is a first-time market vendor who chose this location to open a booth based on prior experience as a customer. “I found it to be the friendliest and most diverse farmers' market,” said Raychaudhury. “For my product, I am hoping to attract some adventurous foodies to my booth.”

Another market newcomer is Michelle Lee, owner of Umma’s Kitchen, which sells traditional Korean kimchi and related products (umma means "mom" in Korean). Her small-batch, tart-and-spicy fermented vegetables are available in both traditional and vegan preparations, the former created from a family recipe. She also serves Korean street food encompassing kimchi fried rice, kimchi pancakes, and weekly specials announced via Twitter. Visiting her table this week, it was clear by the smile on her face that the market experience was thus far a success. 

Food trucks are a particularly popular element for lunchtime visitors and this year’s lineup features 36 trucks including The Lucky Fig owner Luca Manfe, whose credits include a cookbook author and MasterChef Season 4 winner. Manfè utilizes local and organic products in his modern Italian street food menu incorporating Houston-area grass fed bison, beef, and lamb, as well as pigs fed a non-GMO, corn and soy-free diet. Don’t miss the polenta fries—an addictive favorite. The truck is relatively new, having opened a few months ago, and Manfè looks forward to increasing exposure while providing customers with a fast, nourishing and fulfilling meal.

"I believe it is important for everybody to be more social about what to eat and where to buy because not only of course it helps the economy—because if we all go to the big chains these small farmers are not going to have any possibility to survive—but it’s not just that. It’s important to understand what are we putting onto our plate, what we eating every day, how the vegetables are grown, and how the animals are treated," Manfe stressed during his welcome to guests. 

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Sylvester Turner stresses the importance of fixing food deserts.

Image: Ellie Sharp

“We want to make locally grown produce more accessible and affordable to all Houstonians and this farmers' markets network is a step in the right direction,” said Mayor Turner. “It’s my hope and my vision that we can have these farmers' markets in all of our communities throughout the city of Houston, especially where we see food deserts.”

The overall observation is that the market provides a threefold benefit through economic opportunity, healthy food and social interaction between customers and vendors but also between shoppers and each other. Numerous benches and tables around the tents enable visitors to take a load off while indulging in fresh food, sunshine and the company of a kindred soul. Live music wafts through the air lending punch to the atmosphere and it's clear it's more than stomachs that are sustained.

City Hall Farmers Market

Wednesdays 11 a.m.–1:30 p.m. (spring/fall)
901 Bagby Street
Runs through June 29, 2016. The fall opening date is TBA.

Downtown dwellers and employees are encouraged to walk, take Greenlink (the free downtown shuttle) or ride a bike via Houston Bike Share down to City Hall Farmers Market. Garage Parking is located at 400 Rusk or metered street parking is available.

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