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Valley Bounty: Winter Farmers Market nourishes farm-to-table connection
By Sabato Visconti | Daily Hampshire Gazette | January 14, 2022
There’s more to farmers markets than meets the eye. They’re places to buy your favorite locally grown food, along with handmade treats and crafts. For socialization and entertainment. Even places for fighting hunger.
Thanks to the hard work of market organizers, elected officials and other supporters, farmers markets are woven into the very center of civic life in many communities. Organizers like Jodi-Lyn Manning, owner and manager of the Farmers Market at Forest Park in Springfield, are working to draw more people toward that center to experience the benefits these markets have to offer.
Between summer and winter markets, the Farmers Market at Forest Park runs 11 months out of the year. Even in the winter, a diversity of local food abounds, Manning says, from “eggs, to cheese, milk, honey, maple syrup, mushrooms, chicken and duck, so much produce, and treats like wonderful German pastries, too.”
And for produce, “it’s not just turnips and potatoes,” she says. Though there are plenty of the traditional winter staples, each produce vendor grows something year-round. “There’s always fresh lettuce, spinach, microgreens, broccoli — things like that.”
“Most of our vendors have been here at least 10 years, some 20,” says Manning, who has moved back into the Forest Park neighborhood she grew up in. “There’s definitely loyalty, camaraderie and respect, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know and work with them.”
Manning started managing the Farmers Market at Forest Park last May, taking the reins from Belle Rita Novak, who founded it in 1989. Before doing so, she says, “I never realized the magnitude of this industry. Managing a farmers market isn’t just setting up vendors in a parking lot. I’ve had a huge learning curve, while also educating the public on what an essential resource we are.”
Essential resource or critical infrastructure — whatever you call them, farmers markets earn the title by providing strong, broad and direct links among local farmers and a diverse cross-section of the community. Explaining how markets like Manning’s in Forest Park work to combat hunger is a great way to show this.
Hunger in western Massachusetts has skyrocketed during the pandemic, as Manning shares in a sobering statistic: “just in our ZIP code, 01108, between August 2020 and August 2021, the number of people on SNAP (the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) doubled.”
Happily, mutual aid and several state-funded programs exist to supplement SNAP and support people who’ve been financially squeezed by the broader economy. HIP, the Healthy Incentives Program, gives all state residents with SNAP an extra $40 to $80 each month to spend on fresh produce grown by local farms.
Meanwhile, during the summer, Senior Farmers Market coupons provide eligible residents 60 and older $25 a year for use at certain farm stands and farmers markets, and those who qualify for WIC (the Women, Infants, and Children program) are mailed an extra $30 a year to spend specifically at farmers markets. These must be spent by October.
All three programs recognize the opportunity to improve nutrition, public health and the local economy simultaneously as they require spending these benefits on fresh produce directly from local farms.
Farmers markets are already meeting places where local farmers and shoppers gather. When their vendors are set up to accept payment via SNAP, HIP, WIC or Senior Farmers Market coupons, markets become powerful focal points for realizing these synergistic benefits. The Farmers’Market at Forest Park accepts all of these programs — and people are using them.
“We have one of the highest rates of return of Senior Farmers’Market Coupons of any region in the state,” says Manning, meaning more coupons distributed in Springfield (by senior centers and service agencies) are actually being used at the Farmers Market at Forest Park than compared to other regions and farmers markets in Massachusetts.
Still, there are many more who could use these programs but don’t, leaving money on the table. “The number of people on SNAP who understand and use HIP is still very limited,” Manning says. State data puts the rate of Hampden County SNAP recipients using HIP in November at 6%.
It turns out if you build it, but not enough people know about it, they won’t come. To that end, “when I took official ownership of the market in August,” Manning explains, “our goal was to become a nonprofit with a much larger outreach and education component.”
In November, with help from local politicians, the Farmers Market at Forest Park secured $75,000 in state funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to support just that.
“We’re looking to partner with other agencies, and also to hire someone,” says Manning, who is also putting together an advisory committee of vendors and community representatives to guide the market and how this money is spent.
In many ways, the market is a community endeavor, and Manning is glad to collaborate and receive help from others. “I would not be here without CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture),” she says. “Most times when I’m stressed about something — whether it’s a legal question or a grant application — I call and they say, ‘Oh, we can help you with that.’ Between CISA and Mass Farmers Market especially, I have good support.”
In the future, Manning also hopes to give the market a more consistent home, so people will always know where and when to come. “Going into our 24th year, I’m advocating for a permanent, year-round pavilion, hopefully still in Forest Park,” she says.
“I think we have tremendous possibility to be a much larger, more vibrant market, and I’m excited to see what the next five years looks like for us.”
The Winter Farmers Market at Forest Park runs every second and fourth Saturday from Jan. 8 through March, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., in the Shea Building accessed from Sumner Avenue. Masks are required and physical distancing is observed.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about winter farmers markets near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.
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