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By Karen Terry

 

Sometimes a bunch of broccoli is just a bunch of broccoli.

And sometimes it is a political statement.

As summertime approaches, Evanston’s farmers’ markets are gearing up for another season of selling fresh produce, breads, artisanal cheeses, flowers and more at locations around the City. This year, open-air markets will operate at four sites – in the Research Park, at Ridgeville Park, next to Evanston Township High School and at the McGaw YMCA.

With their street musicians, local artists and not-for-profit groups selling fresh baked goods, the markets can be seen simply as an opportunity to make weekly food shopping more enjoyable.

Shopping at the farmers’ markets can also be a vote for sustainable lifestyles that include eating more fresh foods grown closer to home.

“Agriculture is one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels in this country,” says Debbie Hillman, co-chair of the Evanston Food Policy Council and a member of the Illinois Local and Organic Food and Farm Task Force. “About 80 percent of Illinois is farmland, yet over 90 percent of our food comes from out of state. Building a strong local economy for food and farms would cut fossil fuel consumption while generating jobs and better access for more people to healthy, fresh foods.”

Historically, farmers’ markets have been the norm, not a seasonal event. As long as there have been cities with hungry bellies in them, there’s been demand for food from the neighboring countryside. The rise of supermarkets and suburbs in the ’30s, ’40s and  ’50s, though, took a toll on farmers’ markets, which lost their urban client base even as the number of small family farms dwindled.

Today, those trends are becoming reversed themselves. The number of U.S. farms grew 4 percent in the last five years, according to a 2007 census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with the number of very small farms growing faster than very large farms. And while just 97 farmers’ markets operated in Illinois in 1999, there were 270 such markets in 2008, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

Downtown Farmers’ Market

Evanston has a long tradition in this area. The first Evanstons Farmers’ Market opened on July 12, 1975, with ten farmers – an event the local newspaper called “a sold-out success.” Thirty-four years later, the 2009 market opened on May 16 in its current location at the intersection of

University Place

and

Oak Avenue

in the Research Park. A total of 34 farmers are participating in this year’s market, which will operate from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday, rain or shine, until Nov. 7.

West End Market

A few blocks west, the West End Market will open on June 6 at the corner of Church and Dodge. Market hours are 8:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. In addition to fresh produce and flowers, the West End Market will offer handmade goods, crafts and entertainment until Oct. 31.

Ridgeville and YMCA Markets

Shoppers unable to wait until Saturday can turn to midweek markets operated by the Ridgeville Park District (corner of

South Blvd.

and Elmwood) or the McGaw YMCA (

1000 Grove St

.). The Ridgeville Farmers’ Market opens for its third season on June 3 and will feature – in addition to fresh produce – vendors of artisanal cheese, fresh-roasted coffee, goat’s milk soaps and alpaca yarns.

Starting June 24, the McGaw Y will return for another season with a market open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesdays and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Thursdays.

As farmers’ markets grow in popularity, year-round operations are sprouting in numerous locales, including Milwaukee, Dane County (Madison), Seattle and San Francisco. While farmers in northern states lack fresh produce to sell in the dead of winter, they can offer preserved foods or handicrafts to consumers looking for an alternative to the local grocery store. The Fremont, Wash. market in Seattle even has a small circus on the grounds.

The City of Evanston is not actively seeking a site for a year-round market, said  Alisa Dean, who oversees the Evanston Farmers’ Market. However, some farmers have indicated that they would like to see Evanston establish a permanent market location, she said.

Karen Terry is a board member of The Talking Farm, an initiative of the Evanston Food Policy Council (EFPC), a citizens’ group working to ensure access to a safe and diverse regional food supply and to foster awareness of healthy food choices. For more information about EFPC, please call Debbie Hillman at 847-328-7175.