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Farmers Markets, They Grow Up So Fast!

sarah@thelandconnection.org's picture

In the grand scheme of things, we're still a pretty young market here in Champaign. With the start of the new year, however, it has really struck me: this year the Champaign Farmers Market turns 5! It doesn't feel like 4 years could have possibly gone by since we opened up on that first Tuesday of May in 2015, hoping that at least some people would show up and buy from our farmers. As we all set up for the first time, I remember us all constantly reassuring each other saying "hey, this does look like a market!"  

And so we grew up slowly, with plenty of growing pains, but even more joy along the way. We've learned to find a better balance between the size of our customer base and the number of vendors, so that the vendors we do have at the market are making enough money to keep them coming back (not that we aren't intent on working hard to grow that customer base!). We've developed exciting new incentive programs to help fight food insecurity in the community, and so far we've helped over 420 SNAP recipients, giving out over $35,000 in matching funds in just four short years! We've also helped forge stronger bonds between customers, local food producers, and local farmers, leading to collaborations that have resulted in some very tasty treats at the market!

So let's look back at this fourth season. First of all, we were really excited to add new products this year, including locally roasted coffee beans, delicious ice cream made with local ingredients, shrub mixes, fig trees, and different Asian vegetable varieties we hadn't had available before. We were also excited to see much more sweet corn at the market this season. Even though we're a small market, we're pretty happy with the variety we get: in addition to fruits and vegetables, you can reliably find honey, breads, pastries, creative cakes, olive oil, balsamic vinegars, salad dressings, flowers, popsicles, and of course Dragon Fire Pizza. In coming seasons we're hoping to add even more fruit, plus with changes in city of Champaign ordinances we're hoping to add some local beer and/or wine vendors. We're also still working to get more meat, cheese, and eggs at the market. We've got local farmers who have all of these items to sell, but the main sticking point is the cost of permitting for vendors to sell products that require refrigeration. 

In our fourth season, we were excited to launch a couple of new SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) incentive programs at the market. We received a Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant this year to continue our Triple Link Tuesday promotion started in 2017 and add a Winter Bonus program. We signed up participants throughout the season, and if they used their SNAP benefits at least 5 times at the market, they received vouchers to spend during the winter on local food. In the end, 43 participants qualified, and thanks to the support of a second grant from the Illinois Charitable Trust, we were able to give each participant $200 to spend on fruits and vegetables at Common Ground Food Co-op, plus an additional $100 to spend on any SNAP-eligible item at the indoor Urbana Market in the Square. This meant that we gave out almost $13,000 to help struggling families afford fresher food during the winter and early spring.

We also kicked off our new End-of-Month Bonus program. In past seasons, we noticed that SNAP sales went way down at the last market of the month, which is typically when SNAP recipients' accounts are running low. So we used some of the Illinois Charitable Trust money to offer an extra $10 to any SNAP customer on the last Tuesday of the month, no matter the amount they swiped (and that was on top of our regular SNAP match). Even if customers only had $1 left, they could swipe for that dollar, get it matched, and get an extra $10 to spend on fresh produce. This led to a 65% boost in SNAP spending on the last Tuesday of the month, which really helped sales. The number of transactions also doubled over the last market of the month last year, which means more people were shopping more frequently this season. We were also happy to note that we didn't just see increased SNAP sales on the Triple Link or End-of-Month Bonus days. We actually saw a 10% increase in SNAP spending on our regular match days. Overall across the season our SNAP program generated over $14,000 in sales for our local farmers and food artisans. That's good food in the bellies of our community and more money in the pockets of our farmers--we all win.

While it wasn't all a bed of roses--we had some unfortunate weather on a couple of our Triple Link days during peak season, which brought August sales and attendance down, in particular. However, all told, our SNAP sales held steady compared to last year, and with the addition of the End-of-Month and Winter Bonus incentives, we gave out a total of $22,656 in funds to help food insecure individuals in Champaign-Urbana. That's our biggest season yet, and the Link program remains one of the biggest reasons why our vendors love the market.

What's the other big reason they love the market? It's the community we've built, which was evident all season, but especially at the last market of the year. Even though we suffered through many a disgustingly hot and humid Tuesday, and a few storms that would have scared customers off for weeks in past seasons, this year we saw our regular customers come by rain or shine. One Tuesday it rained intermittently throughout the market, and every time the drops stopped falling, the market filled up within minutes. It felt like people were just waiting in the wings for a break in the rain and swarmed in as soon as it happened. New vendors commented on how surprised and delighted they were by the sense of camaraderie at the market, both among vendors and between vendors and customers. And at our Halloween Monster Market on October 30, we closed out the season feeling all the warm and fuzzies. First of all there was a fantastic turnout-tons of families with kids (and some grown ups) in costume. We had more than 800 people visit the market that day, which is twice the October average! We also had different customers who brought treats out to the vendors! One regular customer had made spiced applesauce that she packaged up and shared with us, and another family walked around with the mostly ghoulishly delightful plate of finger-shaped cookies that they shared with every booth. 

It was pretty heartwarming to end the season with that kind of energy, and we can't wait to recapture the magic in May when the market turns 5! I'm so grateful to this wonderful group of farmers and bakers and beekeepers and coffee roasters and popsicle/ice cream/cake/pizza makers and volunteers and musicians and shoppers and sponsors. You have all helped us create a market with a very strong and lovely personality and sense of community. I was thinking about common traits or developmental milestones of kids when they're four-going-on-five, and I came across this description, that most kids at this age are "energetic, silly, and, at times, rowdy and obnoxious." That feels like a pretty apt description of this special little market, and I wouldn't have it any other way. 

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