Organic produce market in downtown Beirut .

By: Nidaa Hilal

“Souk El Tayeb” is the first farmers’ open-air weekly market held every Saturday at Beirut Souks, Downtown Beirut, where fresh organic and traditional food is sold by producers from across Lebanon.

Farmers’ markets are first about creating a link between producers and consumers. Food is not anymore a commodity product on a supermarket shelf, but the labor of hands and traditional knowledge accumulated over generations by farmers. It is not just a loaf of bread, but the bread of Rima, the lettuce of Tony, the kebbeh of Suzanne. It is bringing back a major dimension to food: its human and cultural dimension. Food gets a face, and consumption becomes linked to production: farmers and producers receive recognition as well as a fair return on their labor. Food consumers get to build relationships with their farmers. The consumer, as an aware foodie, is offered food with an extra dimension of tradition (not any cheese, but darfyieh or serdeleh) and regionalism (not any olives, but those of Hasbaya or Aakkar). For many city inhabitants, the experience at the Souk re-establishes their relationship with the land as the source of their food. By linking the producer and the consumer, Souk El Tayeb helps shed away the nearly outcast position of the farmer, as a Fellah, reminding urban inhabitants of the appreciation and respect they owe the farmer.

A farmers’ market is no longer a conventional place to buy and sell, but a meeting place to bring the rural to the urban, to provide economic opportunities to small-scale farmers and producers, and to bring awareness about healthy eating and living. In short, it is a public space for interaction and learning about healthy nutrition and sustainable agricultural practices from organic farming to integrated pest management.

Created in 2004, Souk el Tayeb is a producers-only market, where producers sell directly to consumers without middlemen or intermediation. Souk el Tayeb is a one-day event: tents are set in the morning, and producers arrive with trucks holding their own production to sell for the day before they return to their farms. Souk El Tayeb events have been held weekly since 2004, without any interruption.

The number of participants has grown from 10 farmers in 2004 to about 60 farmers in 2011. The turnover ranges from $300 to more than $1000 a day per farmer. Producers offer four main categories of products at Souk El Tayeb: fresh fruit and vegetables, preserved food or “mouneh”, cooked food, and crafts (e.g., baskets, jewlery). One third of vendors at Souk El Tayeb are certified organic growers, with formal certification granted by organizations such as Istituto Mediterraneo Di Certificazione (IMC) or Liban Cert. Those farmers who are not certified practice traditional production methods, following strict rules and regulations that have been set up by the managers of Souk El Tayeb.

The demand for organic food has definitely increased since 2004. While sales figures are not available, Souk El Tayeb has experienced a steady rise in the number of organic produce growers— evidence of a growing customer base.

The success Souk El Tayeb has led to the expansion of the weekly market to include:

* One-day regional food festivals: Food & Feast are a series of festivals taking place in different Lebanese regions including Beirut, to promote local traditions and food specialties. The festivals are organized by Souk El Tayeb in partnership with local municipalities.
* Dekenet Souk El Tayeb: A private label product line has been created containing a selection of the best items from a variety of small farmers and producers.
* Farmers’ kitchen: Tawlet is where farmers and producers from the weekly market and from across Lebanon come to prepare traditional Lebanese dishes based on old family recipes. A salary is paid to each woman who cooks at Tawlet. Tawlet will buy any surplus food. The cooks and menus change daily, highlighting their specific village or region’s cuisine.
* Souk@school includes a series of educational activities with schools and universities.
* El Tayeb Newsletter (and soon e-magazine) is published to inform, raise awareness, and discuss a variety of topics about green living, food, urban planning, eco-tourism, and green lifestyle.

Souk El Tayeb brings economic opportunities to small farmers by providing them with a stable stream of revenue. The fee for participating in the farmers’ market has not changed since 2004. Farmers may also generate additional sources of income by participating in the Food & Feast festivals, Dekenet Souk El Tayeb, and farmers’ Tawlet.

By way of expanding, Souk el Tayeb is working on building the Eco Souk, which would be a semi-permanent green space designed to serve as a farmers’ market and meeting place. The Eco Souk will house a community garden, eco-playground for kids, communal kitchen, co-op shop, and a mini sorting and recycling plant. The space will adopt green architectural principles. The design calls for the reuse of locally recycled building materials and for power to be provided by renewable energy sources. This innovative concept seeks to bring Lebanese communities together in an eco-friendly green space, which is currently lacking but desperately needed in Beirut.