WASHINGTON – D.C.’s hottest weekend destination for breakfast, brunch and lunch doesn’t require a reservation – or even a chair. All you need is some cash, an appetite and a reusable bag or two.
Every Sunday between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., roughly 5,000 people flock to the tents at 20th Street and Massachusetts Avenue in Dupont Circle for the weekly FRESHFARM farmers market. And they don’t just show up to buy produce and flowers: They come to grab a meal, relax outdoors and catch up with neighbors.
Over the past 18 years, the Dupont Circle farmers market has transformed into a social hub for the community. Toddlers take over a patch of grass in front of the Metro entrance and dance to live music, while young professionals spread out nearby with pizza and pickles from the market’s prepared-food vendors.
Shoppers visit the market’s 50-plus stands to fulfill their weekly food lists, and the city’s top chefs shake hands with the farmers who supply their restaurants with fresh ingredients.
There’s even a designated dog park area outside of the market’s main drag, where pups can play while their owners shop. (Dogs aren’t allowed down the market’s main street, but are encouraged to play in the areas outside the market.)
“It’s for everybody; it’s just a very festive way to spend your day,” says FRESHFARM Markets’ Co-Executive Director Bernie Prince.
However, the Dupont Circle farmers market hasn’t always been so lively. It’s a scene that’s grown over the years.
When the market first opened in 1997, it was the city’s first producer-only farmers market. Prince says while it was a struggle to get the market up and running, it quickly became a part of the neighborhood, and a weekly ritual for nearby residents.
In its first year, the Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market saw 21,000 shoppers. By 2014, that annual number grew to 216,000.
“It’s amazing; this is a part of the city. … We transformed this whole neighborhood – I really feel that,” Prince says.
FRESHFARM attributes the growth of its first market (the nonprofit has since opened 12 others) to a number of factors. Most importantly, Prince says, it fosters conversation – especially between the shoppers and those who grow their food.
“It’s sort of breaking down the barriers. It’s not ‘them’ and ‘us.’ It’s not that stack of stuff on the grocery shelves – it’s really someone that’s involved in the whole process of food. We’re all people, it’s all about relationships, and I think the market creates some of the stronger ones,” Prince says.
It’s also a place where busy residents catch up with neighbors and friends they otherwise might not see during the week.
“Even in a city where you’ve got row house next to row house, you think you would know your neighbors, in a way, but I think mostly they meet here at the market. I do think more conversations go on here, at the market, than across the neighborhood fence sometimes.”
In the past two years, prepared foods have become a trend at farmers markets. FRESHFARM Markets co-executive director Ann Yonkers says it’s a way for farmers and producers to transform locally grown products into a grab-and-go meal option, perfect for the busy customer.
But on Sundays at the Dupont market, many shoppers take their grab-and-go market meals — such as vegetarian tacos, wood-fired pizza, pulled pork barbecue and Chinese dumplings — straight to a patch of grass for a more leisurely meal in the sunshine.
And while some customers quickly breeze through the market to get just what they need, others make a full day out of the weekly event. Prince says it’s not uncommon for patrons to come early for the first pick of produce (morels sell out in the first 10 minutes) and then return to the market later on to meet with friends and grab something to eat.
“It ends up becoming their Sunday.”