by Katie Matlack
Photos by Andy Donohoe
The handset on Federico Arce’s placemat rings. He sets down his fork and knife again and picks up the phone. “Hola?”
We’re eating lunch in the café inside El Galpón, an airy yellow barn with a big black G stenciled on its side. 30 years ago El Galpón was a shelter for mechanics who were fixing trains. The trains and the mechanics went away, and for a while the sheet metal barn was just another empty warehouse. East of the barn, empty train cars still rust in a field of mustard flowers. Today--reroofed, refloored, painted and updated with public restrooms, a kitchen, and a parilla outside--El Galpon is alive again, the host of Buenos Aires’ biggest organic and natural cooperative market. Thousands of customers and over 40 producers and artisans converge here each Wednesday and Saturday between 9 and 6.
Fede is El Galpon’s 27-year old coordinator. I’m sitting in the equivalent of his office and I’ve interrupted his Wednesday to learn more about this Chacarita hideaway. It’s the fourth call he’s gotten since we sat down, and it’s only a Wednesday, mellow compared to buzzing Saturdays. Passionate but laidback, he wears an orange t-shirt and an easy smile; he’ll complete studies in sociology at UBA this year. Before he hangs up I hurry a few bites of the tart I ordered, delighting in the flavors of salty, buttery pie crust and fresh eggplant, tomato, basil and mozzarella that dance across my tongue.
He explains to me the basics: he works for Asociación Mutual Sentimiento cooperative, a benefit society founded in 1998 by a group of ex-political prisoners and exiles. The idea of an organic and natural market emerged after the 2001 crisis when the Asociación responded to hungry people and a worthless peso by setting up a barter network, or red de trueque, that enabled several thousand people to gather in El Galpón--then just an old warehouse--and the train graveyard around it to trade what they had for what they needed. Eventually the barter network exploded. But from its ashes grew the vision of a weekly market, where city residents could buy pesticide-free, locally-grown products at fair prices from the farmers and artisans whose hands had grown or created the goods.
Fede tells me that when the market first opened to the public, vendors had to haul their goods 400 meters away, down to where El Galpón´s cobblestone driveway hits Avenida Federico Lacroze.
“At first they wondered, ‘Who will come?’” says Fede. “They were the pioneers.”
Our table in the café is set with tablecloths and flowers. Visitors rest here to get breakfast, coffee, a glass of local brewed beer. Sandwiches, cheesecakes and pies sit on plates next to pitchers of berry and orange juice in the wood-framed display case running along the long western wall of the barn, where a Jimi Hendrix concert poster is tacked up. To the left of the doorway two waiters in black aprons standing behind a gelato stand shoot the breeze. To the right of the doorway is a rainbow-painted plywood board you can stick your face through for a photo; higher on the wall is a photo of Fidel Castro. He’s smoking a cigar.
When you walk into the barn your gaze falls first not on food, as you might expect, but on information: books, magazines, free pamphlets and DVDs on organic cooking, herbal remedies, and natural living. Mauricio Vigliano opened the market’s bookstand in 2009 to help El Galpon enlighten shoppers about their purchases. He says many El Galpon shoppers buy obscure veggies without even knowing their names, completely mystified over how to cool, slice or peel them. His books help people develop stable relationships with rucula and radicchio, avoiding the one-night-stands. This is as much a place of learning as it is the place to buy tasty tomatoes. El Galpón is a market, but also, in the words of Fede, “an incubator, a distributor of alternative ideas.”
You’ll have no trouble finding the food, though. Wines and oils, preserves, jams and pickles are stacked in cases. Hand-carved signs entice you down aisles filled with dark chocolate and organic wine samples. The producers stand by. They are happy to answer questions on how they make what they sell. Shopping here is no chore- it feels more like a visit with friends. That’s part of El Galpón’s mission: to show it’s possible and rewarding to know your foods’ story; how it arrived from the field to your table. And also the stories of the producer, like the founder of Granja Azucena Artesanal Cheese and Dairy, Nestor Abalos, which deserves to be repeated:
When the banks failed in 2001, he lost everything--even his house. With no other options he fell back on what he knew: how to make cheese. So 10 years ago he began selling small amounts at El Galpon. Today he has his own farm with cows and goats and dogs in the farmyard. From the second you walk in the door you can spy his huge cheese wheels, crumbly chunks, and sharp white, cream and yellow slabs. Pick out a tangy gouda or a mellow Swiss and he or his son will likely slice, weigh, and bundle it for you themselves. Like most of the vendors I meet, they want to be here, and they work hard; Nestor’s son slept two hours the night before preparing the goods for the Wednesdays market.
There’s honey too, sold by Rocio Nascriole, whose stall is further back and whose father Alberto has been in the bee business for 22 years. He has 800 bee boxes; she sells 30 or 40 kilos of honey on market days. I ask her if people who buy from her ever come to the countryside to “meet the producer.” She smiles at my question.
“Most of the time,” she says, “the people are afraid.” She herself has gone to see the bees. Once.
Customers come with lists, scrawl them here, or come with cash and leave with whatever flavor, season, or explanation strikes their fancy (YOU MUST TRY THE OLIVES). When you know what you want, you tell the producer., who will write you a ticket, which is taken to one of the two cashiers before returning to retrieve your treats.
Vendors who sell at El Galpon give a small cut to the Asociación--anywhere from 5 to 12 percent--of what they make, to cover overhead. Another technical detail: while you might find some products that have been certified organic, for the most part you just have to trust the producers (or you can just ask them) about the “natural” label. Getting certified is a time-consuming and expensive process for small, family-owned companies to take on, not to mention that the cost of certification would be passed on to the consumers with higher prices, which goes against El Galpon’s goal of keeping prices low enough that regular people can shop organic too.
Un pedazo del campo en la ciudad, is what people say when they talk about this place--a piece of the country in the middle of the city. The hustling suits and exhaust of Microcentro seem lightyears away. Next to the barn there’s literally a little piece of countryside - an organic demonstration garden, la huerta. Two guys, Alejandro and Fabian, are there weeding and hoeing the compost pile when I wander in. They are eager to share their mate and spill gardening secrets. Spray your plants with a mixture of garlic and alcohol, diluted with water, they tell me, to keep bugs away for a week (and probably the boys too). Boil a banana peel and use the water on your plants to give them a potassium boost. Line your garden plot with basil and mint plants to attract good insects and keep away the bad.
They also point out the gray stones--the kind placed beneath railroad tracks to prevent anything from growing-- now form footpaths between beds of beans and corn sprouts..
“Working in this garden,” Fabian says, “aprendas fuerza.” You learn to be strong.
“There was no architect or construction company,” recollects Nestor Rizza, one of the founding members of the benefit society, whom I spoke with about the early days, before sitting down with Fede. “We’d get credit to buy materials for the roof, then get a subsidy for something else, proceed like that.”
More recently the group, many of whom invested their own money during the early days of El Galpon, had to be strong again--and they didn’t back down. A dispute with another claimant last year threatened to evict them from the 6-story building that houses Asociacion Mutual Sentimiento’s headquarters and administers its community center, mental health clinic, and pharmacy (where members can find generic drugs-especially for cancer treatment-at low prices). Members of the Asociación, together with many of those it supports with its programs like helping small farmers access federal credit programs, marched on Plaza de Mayo. Dozens, many of whom peacefully disrobed, were arrested. Their protest was successful in helping them stay in the building, though the dispute persists today.
Customers I talk to who come to the Galpon mostly learned of the place through word of mouth. It seems once they come, they keep coming back.
“I come here because the fruits and vegetables look more like those from home,” says a woman who grew up 400 miles away in the town of Lincoln.
“I like to buy from producers, to buy natural products,” says Thais Rosa, a Brazilian in aviator sunglasses who is studying Spanish Literature at UBA and learned of El Galpon 3 years ago.
Only in the past 2 or 3 years has El Galpon really begun to thrive. Possibly because word has finally gotten out about this hidden spot. And possibly because of growing awareness across the world that the risks of an industrial agriculture system might just outweigh the benefits.
The benefits: Your soymilk is cheap and tastes the same every time you buy it, and you can buy it anywhere, at any big grocery store, without ever thinking about it.
The costs: You can’t sip mate with Monsanto and ask him how his crop of sunflowers is doing or how his new baby is growing up, like you can with the producers you see week after week at local markets like El Galpon. You’d never expect Monsanto to volunteer his gardening secrets, like Fabian and Alejandro did with me. And you can’t expect straight answers to the questions more people are starting to ask Monsanto these days, like for example, whether he pays his laborers enough to support their landless families, if it concerns him that profits he’s reaping from selling soy are derived from intensive farming practices that ruin the soil, or whether he’s footing the bills for the kids that broke out in strange rashes after playing near the fields sprayed with pesticides.
I ask the students and twenty-somethings who wait tables or make sandwiches or sell wares at El Galpon about the movements--responsible consumption, fair trade, organic agriculture, economic justice, food sovereignty--that El Galpon and Asociacion Mutual Sentimiento pioneered a decade before McDonalds was painting its golden arches green, a decade before “organic” and “WalMart” were ever mentioned in the same sentence. Far from hoping to ride the wave of interest in organic food to help El Galpon get famous, or make more profits, many of the group instead wonder if greenwashing might damage or oversimplify the public’s conception of their way of life. “Maybe people will think it’s expensive, because they only see rich people buy it,” worries Mauricio, the owner of the book stand.
Since they’ve been around all along, they seem a little surprised it’s taken everyone else so long to catch on. But it’s certain they welcome and encourage the efforts of the businesses and people in Buenos Aires who are new to the movement--as long as the newcomers committed -not to the color green but to the serious business of living and working in a way that respects the local, the small producers, the soil and fragile ecosystems, and the future.
“We want to protect our land,” says Fede, while discussing various alternative solutions that El Galpon and Asociación Mutual Sentimiento are working to provide.
“We stand for access, equality, opportunity. We believe everything persists. We’re a philosophy. As a movement we have to transcend what’s in fashion. Because fashion changes. Our way won’t change. It will always be valid and possible, and El Galpon shows you that.”
El Galpon, Av. Federico Lacroze 4171, Wednesdays and Saturdays from 9am to 6pm