By Frier McCollister

Pasadena residents are blessed to have access to a variety of excellent farmers markets. Throughout the week, there are good local options for fresh, farm-grown produce and prepared foods from artisanal vendors. That said, each of the weekly local markets has its own distinctive characteristics, traits and atmosphere.

The sprawling Saturday morning market, staged at Victory Park, next to Pasadena High School, is a buzzing village commons. The South Pasadena Thursday evening market reliably conjures a unique twilit, small-town charm. The Tuesday afternoon Highland Park market, in a lot along the Metro tracks just east of Figueroa, adds a dash of urban grit and bustles with young hipsters and their families.

June 20 marked the return of the Altadena Farmers Market. As always, it’s staged from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays in the Alta Loma Park parking lot, next to the long-thriving community garden.

The market in Altadena maintained itself throughout the pandemic with a preorder and pickup system, in lieu of on-site vendors and visitors. Unlike the other markets, which fell under municipal jurisdictions with more flexible pandemic guidelines, this part of unincorporated Altadena falls under the stricter purview of Los Angeles County.

Local gourmands, chefs and neighbors are attracted to the Altadena Farmers Market. Perhaps because the market was closed to on-site stalls, vendors and guests for so long, the atmosphere in Altadena now brims with a sense of relieved good cheer and the elation of a family reunion. It also prides itself in being as economically accessible as possible to its surrounding neighborhoods.

Stacey Whitney has been the market’s director since January 2019. She was a vendor at the market before that, selling a line of baked goods, particularly her popular cinnamon rolls. A trained chef and culinary educator, Whitney quietly presides over the Wednesday activity in Altadena with uncommon grace and good humor.

Whitney works with her two market partner associates, Loren Phaen and Leigh McGilvray, at the information tent. The team recalled the first weeks of the pandemic lockdown, when the market reverted to online ordering and pickup exclusively. Whitney initiated online ordering and pickup in October 2019, which helped the pivot. But the community response in the lockdown’s first weeks was dramatic. 

“That first month was chaos,” Phaen confirmed.

“It was pandemonium,” Whitney added. The market averaged 400 to 500 online orders weekly, and Whitney and her small team managed a cadre of 15 to 20 weekly local volunteers to deal with the demand. On a recent summer Wednesday, the market now — with the parking lot full of stalls and food trucks — seems quite placid by comparison.

The Altadena Farmers Market routinely hosts a rotating group of more than 30 vendors, which includes farms, food trucks and craft makers. One of those farmers, Nick Long of MetroGreens, operates a hydroponic vertical microfarm in Monrovia. He sells custom microgreen mixes as well as lettuce varieties. He’s a well-traveled veteran of the local farmers market circuit and easily articulates his sense of the Altadena atmosphere.

“Out of all the markets, this is the closest to a real community market. Stacey (Whitney) is one of the best managers I’ve ever worked with,” Long said. “I’ve become really good friends with all the vendors here. It’s like family. Every single vendor is so nice here.” As if on cue, Guillermo Lima from Big Grandma’s Kitchen food truck arrives to hand Long a fresh pupusa.

“That’s what makes the difference. We’re a little family,” Whitney said. “It’s just an extension of the community. Whatever we can do to make it more of that is my goal.” Whitney grew up in Altadena, near the Zorthian Ranch. “When I was growing up in Altadena, there was no farmer’s market or anything remotely like that.”

After graduating from John Muir High School, Whitney initially pursued a career in fashion, graduating with a degree in marketing from FIDM in Downtown Los Angeles. After nearly a decade working in retail fashion management, she decided to leave Southern California to follow a burgeoning interest in food and education.

She moved to Chicago to attend the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago and then also went to the Chicago branch of Le Cordon Bleu culinary academy.

“I have an associate degree in pastry and baking and a bachelor’s degree in culinary management,” Whitney explained.

“I went to culinary school so that I could teach other people to cook.”

Before leaving Chicago for Atlanta, she worked with Careers thru Culinary Arts Program, which trains and sponsors disadvantaged high school seniors to attend post-secondary culinary school.

After moving to Atlanta, Whitney became involved with local farmers markets and community gardens.

“I moved to Atlanta and was really part of the farmers market community there, as a vendor and as a healthy eating instructor,” Whitney said.

She founded a small nonprofit, The Spoonful of Honey Food and Job Security Initiative.

“We were teaching women from southwest Atlanta how to grow their own food and prepare it (and) offered food safety certification,” she said. “We also started a community garden in my neighborhood.”

Upon returning to her hometown of Altadena, Whitney actively maintained the interests she cultivated in Atlanta.

“When I moved back to California, I really wanted to keep my connection with the local food producers and did some volunteer work with local community gardens and Muir ranch and other garden organizations,” Whitney said. “And I really intentionally worked with incorporating my food knowledge with that gardening knowledge.”

Whitney also began vending her baked goods at the farmers market and befriended Elizabeth Bowman, the market’s original director.

“(With Bowman) I shared my vision of what the market should be and what the market could be. This could really be a community hub for a lot of resources,” Whitney recalled.

“Also, importantly, when I was a vendor at the market, knowing the demographics of Altadena and specifically west Altadena, it was disappointing that the market did not look like the community. Demographically it was not representative of what its immediate surroundings were. I had conversations with Elizabeth on how we could make the market more inclusive.”

By the end of 2018, Bowman was in the midst of a career transition and, after several months of discussion, Whitney agreed to take over the market in January 2019. She hit the ground running.

“One of my primary goals is to make the market more inclusive of everyone in the community,” Whitney said. “At least more representative of the Black and Latino people in the immediate area around the market.”

Whitney actively encourages EBT recipients, including use of the Market Match voucher program, with Los Angeles Hunger Action that matches EBT produce purchases up to an additional $10 value. Also, up to 10 free produce boxes are distributed every week on a first-come, first-served basis.

Vendor curation is also part of the plan.

“We are recruiting more vendors that would be appealing locally and more affordable produce,” Whitney said. “I was fortunate to convince Underwood Family Farms to come. Underwood provides this broad assortment of produce at very reasonable prices. We do all these things that let people know the market is for everyone, not just for people who want $10 bread.”

The market also offers free yoga classes most weeks, and Whitney hopes to resume the popular pre-pandemic cooking demonstrations, many of which she conducted herself.

“I am a chef also, and I used those skills to teach people how to eat well,” she said. “I’d like to get back to that also. That’s on my radar for the fall.”

Since opening in 2012, the market’s nonprofit fiscal receiver and sponsor has been the Altadena Community Garden, just next door. As of Aug. 6, Whitney now has a formal 501(c)(3) certification from the IRS for the market. It marks a new phase of growth and, inevitably, fundraising.

“We’ve asked for donations to the market in the past,” Whitney said. “It’s very expensive to run a farmers market. We still definitely need that support financially. Keeping that community support going is very helpful.”

Whitney hopes to engage local business sponsorships as well.

“There is a lot more we want to do for the community, but all these things take resources,” she said. “We are keeping the dream alive, but it would be better if the community can help keep the dream alive.”