Mark Bohnert halves the cantaloupe and starts to carve off slices, marveling at their length.
"I think this is the biggest cantaloupe I've ever seen," he says, pausing and shifting his attention from the sharp knife to the foot traffic on Cherokee Street. Like any good farmers market vendor, he starts hawking samples, with several people happily assenting and using the sweet, juicy slices as relief from yet another 100-degree day.
Bohnert's market, however, isn't just any farmers market. The Cherokee Street International Farmers Market, at the corner of Cherokee and Texas Avenue in the Gravois Park neighborhood, is as much about local outreach as it is about the classic farmers market mission of shortening the distance from field to table.
"I come from the nonprofit world, so I see this market as having a real health mission to it," Bohnert says. "Getting healthy foods to low-income neighborhoods is really important. If people are around more fresh fruits and vegetables, they can make more healthy choices."
Other area farmers markets — the North City Farmers Market in Old North St. Louis, for example, and the City Greens Market in Forest Park Southeast — also i bring fresh fruits and vegetables to underserved communities. But the "international" part of the Cherokee market's name reflects additional goals of bringing familiar ingredients to ethnic communities and providing an outlet for immigrant small-plot growers to sell their produce.
The market started small when it opened July 13, and indeed there were only three booths on the day we visited.
"Two of our vendors couldn't make it today," in large part because of the heat and drought, Bohnert says. Another is out of town this week.
But the booth Bohnert himself is running represents a couple of sources, including one that fulfills the market's goal of immigrant participation. The melons and other items are from a farmer in central Missouri, and freshly picked okra comes from the Global Farms Initiative, a plot of land in the Botanical Heights neighborhood that the International Institute of St. Louis uses to train refugees for agricultural careers.
The next booth over, city residents Elizabeth Daly and Jackie Aubuchon are longtime friends who got together this year to turn their shared passion for gardening into a business they call City Roots and Fruits. Cherry tomatoes, okra, peppers, squash and leafy greens are colorfully displayed on most of their counter, with homemade soaps on the side.
And vegetables grown just a few blocks away are featured by Rebecca Widzer and Eric Devis, who have an garden in the neighborhood and another small plot in Sunset Hills. They're selling mainly heirloom vegetables, including somewhat exotic choices like lemon cucumbers.
Prices at the market vary, with bell peppers selling for 50 cents, for example, and heirloom tomatoes going for $4 a pound. Prices on the higher end are similar to Clayton, Tower Grove and other established markets, but Bohnert has plans for simultaneously appealing to all economic levels.
"We should be able to take SNAP shortly, and we hope to have programs in place to let SNAP participants double their buying power," Bohnert says. SNAP is the federal government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known by its outdated name, food stamps. Bohnert is searching for private funding to back a program similar to one used at other farmers markets that allows SNAP participants to receive $10 in "health coupons" for the first $10 they spend at the market.
Traffic during our visit, both local and driving in from elsewhere, is generally slow. Bohnert slices more cantaloupe and passes out more samples, building word-of-mouth promotion of the St. Louis area's newest, and perhaps most out-of-the-ordinary, farmers market.
CHEROKEE STREET INTERNATIONAL FARMERS MARKET
Where • Cherokee Street and Texas Avenue, a few blocks west of Jefferson Avenue
When • 4-7 p.m. Fridays
More information • cherokeemarket.org, 314-265-5140