As Lee Bo-eun of the Korean Women's Environmental Network and Marche starts to speak about her two projects, the immensity of it doesn't hit you hard right away. It sneaks up on you, swirls around your mind for a while, then leaves you with the sense that you have seen greatness. Greatness disguised as a small rooftop garden put together by a rag tag assemblage of artists, young people and older shop owners in an industrial shop zone in the middle of the world's most dense city: Seoul South Korea. Greatness hidden among a growing network of farmers, chefs, and eaters who have pieced together Seoul's First Farmers' Market ( or Marche as they call it in Korean) in many generations. To call this innovation a rooftop garden or the Marche a Farmers' Market however, is to do these projects an injustice.
I was in the midst of understated organizing genius.
First the roof.
Old suitcases filled with vegetable plants. Plastic PVC pipes planted in strawberries. Picnic tables with holes cut in the middle filled with nasturtium to snack on. One of our group said to the organizers : "this is a small step, but how do we get everyone to do this so we can grow more food for people to eat." I see it differently. This is about much more than food. This is about a country that has seen unprecedented compressed growth in the past thirty years, moving from a very poor country to one of the world's richest. People fear a loss of an ancient food and other culture, where neighbors no Longer speak but compete, elders are suspicious of the youth, and there are few places literally to stop and smell the roses. This tiny bit of artistic fruit and vegetable paradise is a place to regain community. It is a simple but life changing goal.
I think about all the pressure on small food justice organizations like New Roots to show effectiveness to our funders- metrics like increased "nutrition" knowledge and proving folks are eating their five servings of fruits and vegetables a day- and I can't help but feel a little envious of the basic but elegant goal of simply forming community....
The Seoul Marche is a 100% volunteer leader driven market with 67 stalls and 3000 visitors bi weekly set up in a park in An artist district in Seoul. The Marche focuses on communication between farmers and eaters and chefs. It's nickname translates to "A market where we communicate."
Why this emphasis on communication? Turns out this entire Marche offers what we would call heirloom varieties of produce and grains. Varieties that have disappeared off shelves and in market stalls just as they have in America. An ancient food culture at risk of being wiped out by promises of convenient food-like substances and produce bred for travel not taste. sound familiar? It is therefore imperative that farmers chefs and eaters talk to each other and provide constant feedback as they form this new food system.
One of the innovations that really sparked my interest was a simple piece of traditional rectangular cloth sold to market goers complete with directions on how to tie the bundle around your produce to take home. I started to wonder about how our ancestors in Kentucky shlepped home produce from market back in the day. everything about this market is calculated to celebrate the Korean culture. Profits seem secondary almost a by product, at least for now as they find their way.
The Marche has no rules per se but rather depends upon organizers, eaters, and chefs in constant communication about what is possible to grow and what is desired to eat. This gave me much validation for this is the same philosophy used in our Fresh Stop forecasting- direct relationships between farmers and the community- that's where our future lies; that's our hope.
Marche organizers mentioned that some of Seouls largest companies want them to move to their parking lots. They are resisting, not wanting these businesses to capitalize on the brand they call "community."
I would like to leave you with this quote from our hosts: "We would like to move from being responsible consumers to participating citizens." Sounds so much like Wendell Berry I started to feel a little homesick.
Click here to read Part I of Karyn's Journey
Executive Director, New Roots
*Follow Karyn as she eats and meets food justice leaders from South Korea. This will be an ongoing series documenting her journey.