Valley Bounty: A farmers’ winter market fuels farm-to-table connection

There is more to farmers markets than meets the eye. They are places to buy your favorite locally grown foods, along with handicrafts and crafts. For socializing and entertainment. Even places to fight hunger.

Thanks to the hard work of market regulators, elected officials, and other supporters, farmers’ markets have been woven into the heart of civic life in many communities. Organizers such as Jodi-Lyn Manning, owner and manager of the Forest Park Farmers’ Market in Springfield, are working to attract more people towards this center to experience the benefits these markets have to offer.

Between the summer and winter markets, the Farmers’ Market in Forest Park spans 11 months of the year. Even in winter, a variety of local foods abound, says Manning, from “eggs, to cheese, milk, honey, maple syrup, mushrooms, chicken and duck, and lots of produce, and treated like a fine German pastry, too.”

And for produce, “it’s not just about kale and potatoes,” she says. Although there are plenty of traditional winter staples, every produce vendor grows something year-round. “There’s always fresh lettuce, spinach, baby greens, broccoli—stuff like that.”

“Most of our vendors have been here for at least 10 years, and about 20,” says Manning, who returns to the Forest Park neighborhood where she grew up. “There is definitely loyalty, friendship and respect, and I really enjoyed getting to know them and working with them.”

Manning started running a farmers’ market in Forest Park last May, taking over from Bill Rita Novak, who founded it in 1989. Before doing so, she says, “I never realized the scale of this industry. Running a farmers’ market isn’t just about setting up vendors in The parking lot only. I’ve had a huge learning curve, while also educating the public about what the primary resource we are.”

Essential Resources or Critical Infrastructure – Whatever it is called, farmers markets earn the title by providing strong, broad, and direct links between local farmers and a diverse cross-section of society. 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, with Manning sharing a sobering statistic: “Only in our ZIP code, 01108, between August 2020 and August 2021, did the number of people in SNAP (Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) double.”

Fortunately, mutual aid and many state-funded programs exist to supplement SNAP and support people who have been financially stressed by the broader economy. HIP, the Health Incentive Program, gives all state residents who use SNAP an extra $40 to $80 a month to spend on fresh produce grown on local farms.

Meanwhile, during the summer, Senior Farmers Market vouchers save eligible residents $60 and up $25 per year for use at certain farm stalls and farmers markets, and an additional $30 is sent to those eligible for the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children Program). A year spent specifically at farmers markets. These should be spent by October.

All three programs recognize the opportunity to simultaneously improve nutrition, public health and the local economy because they require spending these benefits on fresh produce directly from local farms.

Farmers’ markets do meet places where local farmers and shoppers congregate. When sellers are prepared to accept payment via SNAP, HIP, WIC, or Senior Farmer’s Market coupons, markets become strong focal points for these synergistic benefits. The Farmers Market in Forest Park accepts all of these programs — and people use them.

“We have one of the highest yield rates for senior farmers market coupons of any area in the state,” Manning says, meaning that more coupons distributed in Springfield (by senior centers and service agencies) are actually used at the Forest Park farmers market than in other areas and farmers markets in Massachusetts.

However, there are still many who can use these programs but don’t, leaving money on the table. “The number of people in 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 that if you build it, but not enough people know about it, they will not come. To that end, “when I took formal ownership of the market in August,” Manning explains, “our goal was to become a nonprofit organization with a much greater presence in outreach and education.”

In November, with the help of local politicians, a farmers market in Forest Park secured $75,000 in government funding from the US Bailout Act to back just that.

“We’re looking to partner with other agencies, as well as to hire someone,” says Manning, who is also working on an advisory panel of vendors and community representatives to guide the market and how the money is spent.

In many ways, the market is a societal endeavour, and Manning is happy to collaborate and receive help from others. “I wouldn’t be here without CISA (The Community Engaged in Sustainable Agriculture),” she says. “Most times when I’m nervous about something — whether it’s a legal question or a grant request — I call and say, ‘Oh, we can help you with that. “Between CISA and Mass Farmers Market in particular, I have good support.”

In the future, Manning also hopes to give the market a more uniform home, so that people always know where and when to come. “As we head into our 24th year, I’m championing a year-round permanent pavilion, hopefully in Forest Park,” she says.

“I think we have a huge potential to be a bigger and more vibrant market, and I’m excited to see what the next five years will look like for us.”

Forest Park’s Winter Farmers’ Market takes place every second and fourth Saturday from January 8 through March, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., in the Shea Building accessed from Sumner Street. Masks are required and physical distancing is observed.

Jacob Nelson is the Communications Coordinator for CISA (The Community Engaged in Sustainable Agriculture). To learn more about winter farmers markets near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.

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