The best time of the food year
The opening of the farmers market
This Saturday is the opening day of the Old Capitol Farmers Market (OCFM). I’ve had the day circled in my calendar for weeks now – I feel like a little kid counting the days until her birthday party. Though I consider myself a farmers market enthusiast and regular, it wasn’t until I spoke with some of the folks who manage the market that I realized just how valuable an asset it is to our community.
The OCFM is sponsored by HSHS St. John’s Hospital and governed by Downtown Springfield, Inc. (DSI), which partners with the Illinois Stewardship Alliance (ISA) and Springfield Area Arts Council (SAAC) to manage the market. SAAC coordinates the musicians who perform at the market and approves artisan vendor applications. ISA staff and volunteers oversee market operations, including registration of farmers and mobile food vendor applicants, market layout and booth assignments, farm inspections and educational programming. Maintaining the integrity of the market is critical to the mission of the ISA, whose goal for the OCFM is not only to support small farms and producers that feature the diversity of foods and specialty products unique to central Illinois, but to do so in a way that is accessible to everyone in the community. DSI, ISA and SAAC jointly recognize that a viable and successful market helps to support and invigorate downtown Springfield, while building community and increasing access to fresh, local foods.
While I understood that by shopping at the OCFM I was directly supporting small businesses in my community, I didn’t realize the potential this market has in addressing the real and critical issues of food insecurity in central Illinois. A couple of years back, the OCFM began accepting SNAP (supplemental nutritional assistance program) dollars, formerly known as food stamps. The market has since partnered with LINK UP Illinois, which, through their LINK Match grant program, provides farmers markets across the state with funding to match SNAP funds dollar for dollar, effectively doubling the produce purchasing power of SNAP shoppers. The OCFM has had wonderful success with this program and has progressively gotten more money in matching funds each year. Liz Moran-Stelk, ISA’s executive director, described the program as a win-win for both SNAP shoppers and the farmers who sell at the market. “Last year we received $8,000 in matching funds, which equates to $16,000 in sales to the local farms that sell at the market. So in addition to making the OCFM a very affordable option for SNAP shoppers, it benefits the farmers as well. At the ISA we’ve put a lot of effort and hours into not only making this a functional and effective farmers market, but a just one as well.”
The OCFM recently entered into a working partnership with the Junior League of Springfield, which has made a long-term commitment to addressing the issue of food insecurity in Sangamon County. Through this partnership, the Junior League has committed to help make the OCFM a viable tool in tackling food insecurity. “This partnership will likely be rolled out in a couple of phases,” Moran-Stelk told me. “Initially we want to introduce the folks with the Junior League to the inner workings of the market, increase awareness of our SNAP match program, then strategically work together to figure out solutions to address the obstacles that prevent folks from utilizing this program. After we’ve identified these obstacles and their solutions, we will be able to work together to implement changes that can address those difficulties. We’re already operating a great market, but we know it’s a place where our community can do more. We want this to be a market that is welcoming and inclusive to everyone in our community.”
Transparency and authenticity is also critical to the mission of the OCFM. While the phrase “farm to table” has become a popular buzzword in today’s vernacular, too often it’s overused and effectively meaningless. Not so at the OCFM. The folks who manage the market put countless hours into making this a true farmer’s market. I sat down with Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant, manager of the OCFM, last week as she was in between farm inspections. Farms that are new to the market are inspected by the market manager to ensure that they are growing or raising their products within 200 miles of Springfield. This distinguishes the market from some of the stands that pop up along the roadsides each spring and summer and dupe unsuspecting customers into buying “locally raised” produce well before it’s actually in season in Illinois. Many of these stands simply buy produce from a wholesaler, then resell it as “locally raised.” I once stopped at a roadside stand that tried to convince me that the oranges they were selling were grown nearby!
While mobile food and value-added vendors have always been encouraged to use local products, Cavanaugh-Grant told me that this year the market’s policies are being refined to increase vendors’ usage of local products. Starting in the 2018 season, the market will implement the Signature Ingredient Rule, in which mobile food and value-added vendors, such as those selling baked or canned goods, will be asked to highlight a locally procured ingredient each week. Vendors will be given a receipt book to document the name of the signature item, the local ingredients used, and the farms they were purchased from. These vendors will be supplied with chalkboards where they can advertise these items and highlight the farm the ingredient was purchased from. This new rule is intended to encourage vendors to utilize products sold by the farmers on site at the market, and will have the added benefit of increasing consumer awareness of what’s in season and how to use it.
Shopping at the OCFM won’t save the world overnight, but spending your food dollars there certainly makes a positive impact on your community in a multitude of ways. Plus, it’s downright delicious. The market will celebrate its grand opening on Saturday, May 19. In addition to a ribbon cutting with Mayor Jim Langfelder, marketgoers will be entertained by the Washington Middle School Marching Band and the Springfield Youth Performance Group, and treated to complimentary cake from the folks at Incredibly Delicious. The OCFM is located at Fourth and Adams and is open Wednesdays and Saturdays through the end of October from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Contact Ashley Meyer at Ashley@realcuisine.net.