Sunflowersat the Downtown Farmers’ Market. Photo by Mary Mumbrue

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The increasing popularity of farmers’ markets in Evanston has resulted in a proposal to increase the annual health inspection fees charged to vendors, as well as expanding the fee to cover a full year and multiple markets, rather than one season and one market. As the proposal makes its way from the Human Services Committee to City Council, controversy is sure to follow.

Current inspection fees are staggered depending on the risk associated with the product being sold. Whole, uncut, unprocessed fruits and vegetables (including cut herbs) are exempt. If that category of product is all that a vendor sells then no health inspection fee is required.

Low-risk products include food prepared elsewhere in an already-inspected kitchen and brought to the market in packaging. Packaged food, including produce, becomes medium-risk when it is removed from packaging or sliced and handed out to customers as samples. High-risk includes everything else: eggs, meat, fish, milk and cheese, honey, apple cider and garlic in oil.

The current fee structure is based upon one market, one season. Low-risk permits are $75; medium-risk $150; and high-risk $225. The fees were established when the downtown Saturday market was the only game in town, said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz. More recently, markets have started in the West End, at Ridgeville Park and on Central Street, he said. This winter a new market took root at the Ecology Center.

The City’s response is to offer an annual permit covering a full year and all Evanston markets. The pass would be good for the downtown market Saturday, any of the other weekly markets in town, and the winter market. It would also include any “pop-up” markets that occur periodically in church parking lots or elsewhere.

Fees would increase for vendors who plan to attend only one market for one season – such as for vendors who attend only the downtown Saturday market. But all other vendors would realize savings both in costs and convenience. The fees would be $125 for low-risk, $200 for medium-risk, and $275 for high-risk permits.

One-day fees, now $105, would stay the same and cover vendors attending only a single-day event or appearing only one day at an established market.

Frank Jeffers of the Friends of the Evanston Farmers Markets, a non-profit organization that supports the markets, said, “We feel current fees are out of line with fees charged by other markets.” Choice of markets in the area will cause farmers to leave Evanston behind, he said.

Leila Shooshani of Faith in Place, a non-profit that encourages and promotes one-day “pop-up” farmers’ markets at places of worship in the Chicago area, said that her organization was forced to cancel a scheduled market “because of [Evanston’s] fee structure.” Last year, she said, fees were waived for one-day winter markets allowing markets to go forward.

Mr. Bobkiewicz said that he felt continuing to waive fees for winter markets would not be fair to those who pay during the summer or at other markets. He said that the annual fee would allow any vendor with a permit to set up at any pop-up market in the City. Only newcomers, or one-time vendors, would have to pay the one-day fee. He said he thought the season pass would be a good option for most vendors.

Regardless of the fee structure, there was no controversy surrounding the inspections themselves. Alderman Delores Homes, 5th Ward, said, “I happen to be a real supporter and advocate of farmers’ markets. But health inspections” are very important “when they have food.”

The question is how much, if anything, to charge for inspections. “We do think it is appropriate to look at how much is charged,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz. “We can fund [health inspections] under the general fund. The amount of money [we recoup] is a policy question for the Council.”

The season-pass fee structure passed out of the Human Services Committee and will appear at City Council soon.