This week is National Farmers Market Week!
Markets are common around the world, connecting producers directly with consumers for centuries. In the United States, though, farmers markets have grown more popular over just the last 20 years as the local food movement has gained popularity. Even Chicago during a pandemic lists 38 farmers markets as being open right now.
Farmers markets can promote and improve fresh food access, especially in areas with low food security, but as our last Food Readers Book Club book Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It pointed out, they can quickly leave out low-income families, immigrants and BIPOC communities, the groups that ironically introduced many of the heirloom varieties, developed the farming techniques and shared the culinary traditions that we embrace today.
At The GardenWorks Project, we believe that everyone deserves fresh produce. We partner with local farms like Mighty Greens Farm and Nichols Farm and Orchard for Harvest Against Hunger, our annual fundraiser. Local companies like Midwest Trading provide fresh compost for our Home Gardening Program.
With this week being National Farmers Market Week, we want to show you how you can support local farmers and vendors, regardless of your grocery budget. For those of you who have felt unwelcome or been unable to participate in the local food system because of cost or limited access, we hope these tips empower you to get involved.
Head to the market with a budget.
If you only have $15 to spare during the week, write it down. Knowing how much you can spend will help guide you through the market. Be intentional with the dollars you do have. Support the vendors whose produce matches your cultural and dietary needs and preferences. Choose, where you can, to support the BIPOC- and LGBTQ-owned businesses that have likely faced the hardest journeys to selling at market.
Look for high-price, low-weight items.
Unlike grocery store produce, farmers market produce can be smaller and more lightweight. Think: bell and hot peppers, fingerling potatoes, garlic, and even onions. You can buy three or four small peppers for the same price as two at the grocery store.
Shop by the piece.
When produce is smaller than anticipated, a harvest is smaller than expected, or the pieces are too big to bunch, a vendor might offer prices by the piece. They might cost $0.75 or even $0.50. This way, you can purchase exactly the amount you need, as opposed to the bunch from the grocery store that might go bad because you do not use it all.
Visit towards the end of the market.
Farmers’ goal at market is to sell out. If they traveled a long way, arrived early to set up and then stand for hours, they do not necessarily want to bring anything back to the farm with them. While the selection of produce and other goods may be smaller, you can get discounts and deals to help them out. And if you don’t know how to use something, ask them!
Look for a LINK Up Illinois table
Every $1 spent with SNAP generates between $1.50 and $1.80 for the local economy. THe program has helped millions of families avoid food insecurity and lifts them out of poverty. Many markets in Illinois--and around the country--not only accept SNAP benefits, but match them! In Illinois, the LINK Up Illinois Program will match up to $25 at participating markets that you can use at most other partner markets. You can check this map of markets or when you visit the one nearest you, look for a table promoting the option.
Use the fruits, roots, stems and leaves.
Root-to-stem cooking is becoming more popular, with plenty of cookbooks and recipes available. Carrot tops can be used to make a pesto. Beet leaves can be sauteed, and stems can be roasted like fries. Most root vegetables also do not need to be shaved. The skins actually have most of the nutrients! If you cannot use them, compost them at home or research opportunities near you.
Partner with a food access program. Ask vendors to consider donating their extra items.
You can support and facilitate access to fresh food by partnering with a food access program, many of which do not receive enough fresh produce. If you volunteer in your community, or want to start, ask one if you can solicit donations on their behalf. As local markets close up for the day, ask vendors if they’d like to donate the extra produce to the organization. You might get a few no’s at first, but be persistent! Some will embrace the opportunity.
Look for volunteer opportunities at local farm stands and at markets.
Some stands and markets have volunteer opportunities, published and unpublished. You might be able to work out an agreement where you give three or four hours of your time for some produce at the end of the shift. If you volunteer throughout the season at a market, you might build close relationships with some vendors who offer you freebies or discounts. Either way, you’re getting involved with the promotion of the market and learning more about local food systems and agriculture.
Snap photos of vendors and their produce and tag them on social media.
Whether you have a highly engaged following on social media or not, all markets, vendors and farmers will appreciate you spreading awareness of their business and presence in the community. Give them and the market a follow to share updates with your friends. Towards the end of market season, they may also use their social media channels to promote year-end sales, early-bird pricing for next year’s CSA, free produce, donation opportunities and more.
How are you planning on supporting farmers and local markets this month?