by Lisa Bralts, Vice-President of The Land Connection’s Board of Directors
Central Illinois’ 2020 growing and market seasons, like those everywhere else, found themselves perched unsteadily on top of a global pandemic. Farmers and eaters here rose, unsurprisingly, to the occasion – attendance at C-U’s weekly markets (TLC’s own Champaign Farmers Market on Tuesdays and Saturday’s Urbana’s Market at the Square) was steady, despite new rules and different looks for both. Most people who ventured out to markets seemed thrilled that a market was happening at all, that they could participate in something social and local. The weekly markets provided a short respite (albeit masked, distanced, and sanitized) from everything else happening in the world.
This got me thinking anew about the aspects of public local food markets – in the best of times and the not-best of times.
In the best of times:
- Farmers markets serve as social events. Friends and neighbors reunite at markets. Conversations between strangers start while waiting in line. Relationships are built, week by week, between farmer and shopper. The people-watching can, of course, be sublime;
- Farmers markets are also cultural events – placemakers, windows into the real world of a community. They contribute heavily to the vibe of a neighborhood or city, and become (for better or for worse) part of an area’s brand. They become attractions for visitors, and a place to invest in for residents;
- They’re critically important financially for the farmers who attend – for many farmers, public markets are their primary outlet – and keeping farmers in business means markets can stay in business;
- Markets are economic engines within their communities. Money spent at markets often gets re-spent in the market, and/or spent elsewhere in the community, Robust markets help create food-related jobs and contribute to the creation of strong local food economies, which fosters the development of strong local economies.
So – how’d we do in these, the not-best of times?
As mentioned at the top, the news from our local markets as the season comes to an end is quite good, given the circumstances: The local food community rose to the challenges of this COVID spring, summer, and fall. Markets stayed in business. Farmers survived strange, and sometimes destructive, weather. New technologies were adopted. Market shoppers supported local growers and kept their before-times Tuesday or Saturday market routines intact (it cannot be overstated that safely seeing folks outside each week felt rewarding and anchoring after the abrupt shutdowns of mid-March and the shelter-in-place order that followed). And it was satisfying (as it always is) watching the seasons play out (as they always do) in the availability of locally-grown food.
So. Yes. Our local farmers markets contributed socially, culturally, financially, and economically to holding our communities together during a deeply uncertain and worrying crisis in 2020. What about next year?
The civic function of local markets – the role markets play within their communities – depends on the health of, and investment in, those four aspects. But there’s more. In strong communities with supported local food economies, farmers markets also play roles in community/regional food security and independence as providers, collaborators, and connectors. How might we, as a regional food system, work more closely together to scale up operations at every point in the food system to better feed ourselves… in the best of times and the not-best of times?
Our momentum is good. Let’s keep it up – and more importantly, plan ahead, with clear eyes, for what will surely be a changed food landscape as we move into 2021.