Two employees crowded around Cindy Gentry at the Downtown Phoenix Public Market Urban Grocery and Wine Bar, barraging her with a series of questions.
“Yes, that sounds good,” Gentry agreed with one of the employees. “Now I’m going to leave you two because I have to do an interview with a student which should be here soon,” she said as she turned around to see that he had already arrived.
As she walked toward the front of the market, another employee approached her with a question.
“I’m sorry,” she turned and said to the student. “Could you excuse me for a couple of minutes? Go ahead and take a seat in the front of the store over there in the sunlight and I’ll be right with you.”
Gentry quickly returned after helping the employee.
The seats at the front of the building provided a good view of the whole store: from the locally grown organic produce stand to the local wine bar at the back of the store to the market cafe where one of the specials of the day was a cheese crisp made with tortillas and cheese produced by local Arizona farmers.
Gentry is the founder and executive director of Community Food Connections, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a healthy community based on locally grown foods.
Gentry’s connection with local food industries started about 23 years ago when she started doing work with the Association of Arizona Food Banks. She moved through a variety of different positions and jobs while working there, including about 10 years with the Arizona Statewide Gleaning Project, which takes unsold crops from local farmers and distributes them to needy families.
During her work with the project, Gentry noticed that a large density of food was not being sold by the farmers and began thinking of a way to integrate helping out the farmers economically while introducing healthier foods to low-income families in the valley.
In 2002 she launched Community Food Connections to do just that. In 2005 CFC introduced their Saturday morning farmers market on the corner of North Central Avenue and East Pierce Street that included several local outdoor vendors selling their products directly to consumers.
“(We wanted it to be) a gathering place for the community to be around food,” Gentry said. “Every city started with a market where people came to trade and barter. It became the crossroads where people came to trade … We hoped that this market could do the same thing.”
Today that hope seems to be working out.
The Saturday morning market has eighty local vendors and CFC added a Wednesday evening market in 2008. More recently, in 2009, CFC opened the store version, the Downtown Phoenix Public Market, which is open Tuesdays through Saturdays and houses products from about sixty venders.
Rachel Schmitz, the manager’s assistant, said she gained a fresh outlook by working at the Downtown Phoenix Public Market.
“I wasn’t that familiar with the whole supporting local farmers movement before working here,” Schmitz said. “I understood it, but working under (Gentry) has given me a whole new perspective on it.”
Wally Baudway, a cashier in the store, said Gentry isn’t the typical boss.
“I wouldn’t do this job anywhere else and be as happy,” Baudway said.
After walking into the store when Gentry is there, it is obvious to see the affection the employees have for her.
During the interview a chef walked up and asked for Gentry to try a green bean dish she had just made, and by the chef’s demeanor you could tell she wasn’t going to leave until she got an opinion. When Gentry gave a positive remark on the dish, the chef cracked a smile and then rushed off to try Gentry’s recommendations.
In addition to watching over the farmers market and the store, Gentry is also trying to introduce locally grown foods into school districts in the area.
Gentry said she also tried to get Aramark, the food service provider of the meals on the Downtown campus and a couple of the other dorms in Tempe, to support local farmers. However, as of now, ASU students have to rely on the farmers market for local foods.
Sophomore journalism student Lacy Hanna attends the Saturday farmers market about once a month.
“I love supporting the local producers,” Hanna said. “Their food is excellent.”
Hanna and her friends often buy hummus, cheese and bread, she said.
Gentry said she is impressed with the local businesses she collaborates with.
“The small businesses are some of the best I’ve ever met because of their work ethic,” Gentry said. “I’m grateful for being able to work with them.”
Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org