Myra Gorman is one of those people who you might never see or meet at the Downtown Evanston Farmers’ Market, which begins a new season this Saturday.
If you go to the market and don’t cause a ruckus, try to sneak in a dog, suffer from a medical emergency or lose a small child, your paths might never cross. But for the 56 vendors signed up for the 2023 market season, Gorman is equal parts counselor, arbiter and cheerleader.
“I love being at the market,” she said. “It energizes me.”
Gorman is a seasonal employee, having retired from a 28-year career in Evanston’s Parks & Recreation Department as an inclusion coordinator. She is a certified recreational therapist; one of the first changes she made when she started managing the market 12 years ago was to obtain ADA-compliant porta-potties.
She helped make the market a Saturday destination for families, and started the Spud Club (with “Tater Tots” and “Small Fry” groups) to keep small kids busy with market-related activities while one of their parents shops.
Gorman works part time from May through November, primarily on Saturdays (market days) and two other days during the week. Starting in January, she will put in a few hours here and there, depending on which vendors are invited to return and if there are spots open for new vendors.
The application process for new vendor applicants is arduous and detailed, but to Gorman it’s one test to see if they’ll be good candidates for the market. Applications are available on Feb. 1 and must be submitted in full by March 1, including a $150 application fee and product samples.
On a specific date, Gorman organizes two tastings, one for her colleagues at Parks & Recreation and one for the board of the Friends of the Evanston Farmers Markets. Each participant anonymously ranks the vendors’ wares. Based on the compiled results, invitations are extended to the top vote-getters.
All new prospective food vendors are asked to provide samples of their wares. Yet every year Gorman has applicants that don’t send in samples. “There are a lot of rules you need to follow,” she said. “If they can’t represent their own business right from the start, it’s probably not a good fit.”
Evanston has had a farmers’ market since 1975. It’s been relocated numerous times. But it always perseveres because of the quality of the food and produce the farmers bring and the devotion of market customers.
Gorman works hard to make the market as transparent as possible so that customers know where their food is coming from. She visits the farms to learn what they are doing – and to make sure they do what they say they are doing.
She explained, “Just as a hypothetical example, the term ‘organic processing’ means the machines are cleaned without chemicals. The organic meat is processed first the following day, before nonorganic meat. It’s usually more expensive.
“Someone might raise their farm animals using all organic feed without antibiotics. But if they don’t follow through and have the animals processed using an organic processor, the meat is not organic, and you have to make that clear in the product description.”
On a typical market Saturday, rain or shine, Gorman gets up at 2:45 a.m. and arrives at the market by 3 a.m., wearing her headlamp. Her assistant is Debora Clark, who has worked at the market for many years. Gorman said, only half jokingly, that Clark knows more people and is more popular than she is; people love Clark, according to Gorman.
The first item on the to-do list is to check the parking lot at 1800 Maple Ave. where the market is located. If there are vehicles that do not belong to the one or two farmers who get there before she does, Gorman calls the police. An officer comes to write the tickets and call North Shore Towing.
Gorman and Clark unlock the storage area and start to bring out supplies and equipment, which takes about two hours. There are a few carts to help with the heavier items, but the work is still cumbersome, and there’s a lot to do before the market opens (at 7 a.m. for disabled and older shoppers, 7:30 a.m. for the general public).
A partial task list:
- Set up three tents and anchor them with 25-pound weights.
- Put up 15 to 20 tables for people to sit at and eat.
- Set up chairs to go with the tables.
- Place signage in multiple places informing people of market rules, including opening and closing times and – especially – the ban on dogs or other pets, only certified service animals such as seeing eye dogs are allowed.
- Ensure six streets are blocked off.
- Distribute recycling and garbage containers around the lot.
- Unlock the porta-potties.
The farmers and other vendors begin to arrive. Many have been up all night, having driven from Indiana or Michigan to get to Evanston in time to unpack their trucks and stock their tables in time for the market opening.
“These vendors are the hardest-working people I’ve ever met in my life, especially the farmers,” Gorman said.
Every vendor must be at the market by 6:30 a.m. The gate allowing trucks in and out is closed at 6:45 a.m. without exception. It’s a big inconvenience for a vendor to not have its truck nearby, but there can’t be truck traffic on site once shoppers are ready to stream through. Within the first hour, several hundred shoppers descend on the market.
At the city tent, the market makes it easy for people who shop with SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to double their spending. This match helps SNAP shoppers get access to high quality food, which is often more expensive.
Around 12:15 p.m., people from the food pantry run by Hillside Free Methodist Church walk around with large plastic bins. Every farmer is asked if they’d like a container to fill with food they aren’t selling and don’t want to take back with them. The filled containers are recollected around 1 p.m. as farmers begin packing up their trucks. Every vendor must remain on site until 1 p.m. when the market closes.
Gorman hires four high school students each year at the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program job fair. They primarily work with the kids at the Spud club, but at the end of the day they disassemble the tents and pack up the storage unit with the tables, chairs, weights, signs and other supplies. The parking lot is usually cleared by 1:45 p.m.
When everything is put away, the cleaning crew arrives. Gorman said, “They don’t give me a hard time, they just do their job and leave.”
Who are “they”? It’s the birds that sit on the edges of the top floors of the surrounding buildings. Gorman swears “they pick the place clean.”
Decades ago when Myra was about to become a parent for the first time, I remember her commenting that she hoped to be the best Kool-aid Mom on the block. Mission accomplished….Best in Evanston and easily the North Shore. An incredible lady! Thanks for all you do, Myra.
Wendi, thank you for the article on community treasures Myra and Debora. I think they are just as hard-working as the farmers who attend, getting up at 2:45 am to prepare. I had no idea of the work that went on behind the scenes. Thank you Myra and Debora!
This is one of the most interesting articles I’ve read in a long time — informative and very well written. I’d never really thought about what goes on behind the scenes, but it’s clear these two women are treasures.
Thank you, Myra and Debora! I have been going to the Evanston Farmer’s Market for over 20 years and I had no idea how much work was involved.
Continuity is important..no need to invent the wheel all over again..and this contributes immensely toward making this a wonderful market!
(If they need someone to sample the bakery goods, let me know!)
Myra is an AMAZING, CARING person. I have known her her whole life! I know this because I am her very PROUD father.