Ah, the beloved Market at the Square resumes this Saturday! I was overjoyed to hear about the upcoming event, as the Market always creeps up on me and is a lovely surprise every Friday during the summer. This year, my anticipation bubbled over a bit and so I scoured the Internets, interviewed Lisa Bralts, the Market Director, and basically whatever else I could to find out more about the Market this summer.
First, a mini-history lesson. I was somewhat surprised to read in the latest edition of Harper’s Index that 40% of farmer’s markets in the US were only established within the past decade. However, it should be a point of pride for C-U citizens that our farmer’s market is pretty old school since it began in 1979.
I asked Lisa Bralts, the current Market Director, about the initial motivation behind the Market. The Market, as Bralts explained, was originally started and run by local farmers who figured they could sell their surplus produce to locals. This simple notion turned out to be true, but Bralts is quick to note the Market’s continuing success is also the result of “this very simple relationship between the farmer and the eater” as well as “a really solid group of artisans who sell their work at the Market — while people may come for the food, many of them stay to have a look at what the artisans are selling, or to take in some live music.”
Certainly the Market is important to C-U residents because it is an event where the community can come together on a weekly basis. When I first heard about the Market upon moving here, one of my initial concerns was that it could be one of those bourgeois, tacitly exclusive gatherings. However, during my own visits at the Market, I have seen with my own eyes the incredible diversity in the products available as well as a wide range in terms of pricing, and decided for myself that our Market does not fall into the above category.
Furthermore, the organizers behind the Market are conscious of the economic disparity that can limit people’s spending at such events and have come up with some great alternatives. For example, most of the Market farmers accept Farmers Market Nutrition Program coupons that are distributed by the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District and a program called Women, Infants, & Children (WIC). In addition, starting May 8th, the Market will be accepting the LINK card for low income families and all farmers and food producers will be participating in this program. While certainly more could always be done to accommodate the low income citizens of our community, at least the Market is taking a few bold steps in the right direction.
That’s not all. While we can still expect the same Market when it opens on May 1st, there will be some more innovations as well. I was especially appreciative to hear that the Market will now be accepting credit and debit cards, as I somehow find it really bothersome to lug cash around. Also, there will be some new faces at the Market in addition to the old (don’t worry guys, the lovable standbys such as the Honey Man and Blue Moon Farm will still be there). We can look forward to the local Flatlander Chocolate having their own booth and—I was especially excited about this one—a mini vegetarian restaurant on wheels, named Veggie Trails (for a peek at their awesome, cowboy themed truck and just as lively menu visit: http://veggietrails.biz). Other new booths include: Baking Bakers, two new meat vendors, and a new Amish baker.
While more changes abound, there’s just one more I would like to mention in this limited space. Though more information on this is forthcoming, Bralts informed that in mid-May, the Market coordinators will be launching a new campaign called “Eat Here.” According to Bralts, the campaign is “all about the benefits of shopping for and eating locally-grown fruits and vegetables,” which is absolutely what the Market is there for.
Whether you’re a longtime Market attendee, or just a casual Smile Politely browser who has never heard of the Market, I highly highly encourage you to stop by the first one of the year this Saturday. Not only will there be all the exciting new developments mentioned above, the Market at the Square is only as much as the community is willing to contribute to it.
What I love the most about the Market (beyond its delicious offerings and local music/art performances) is the fact that it attracts such a diverse and interesting crowd of people. On certain hot summer mornings, when people are streaming in to participate, the Market becomes akin to a community party, brimming with the excitement of young children and the energy of the crowd.
However, I can’t say it any better than this quote that Lisa Bralts shared with me, by recording engineer, Steve Albini: “People go to record stores for the same reason they go to the farmers market. You get to see the merchandise, look at things you would never consider on your own, take advice from people who know what they're talking about, stumble onto stuff, and maybe get your mind changed about something.”