Donita Anderson was looking for something good to eat, so she started a farmers market.
That’s an oversimplified version of what really happened yet what started as a simple search for healthy food options more than 20 years ago gradually evolved into the North Union Farmers Market (NUFM), a model system of 10 markets scattered throughout northeast Ohio.
“I was young, working as a chemist and thinking it might be time to start a family,” said Anderson, a Cuyahoga County Farm Bureau board member. “One thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to find a source of nutritious, fresh and local foods for them.” And when she couldn’t find the source, she created one.
Her family relocated from Michigan and landed in Shaker Heights where she connected with a lot of like-minded people through her church and her children’s schools.
“Together with a group of community activists and civic leaders we created the infrastructure for the market,” she said. “A representative of the merchants at Shaker Square begged us to set up in the square and here we are, 20 years later, getting ready to celebrate an anniversary by honoring the farms and farmers who make the market what it is, like Louis and Savory Romer from Snake Hill, who have been with us from the beginning.”
Anderson has observed that the profile of today’s farmers market is constantly changing. “Thirty years ago, people got their farm fresh produce from truck farmers,” she said, describing pickups filled with their harvest and trucked to centralized locations. While a few truck farmers can still be found at markets like Toledo’s Downtown Market, Anderson is constantly adding features and programs to NUFM that move it beyond just a venue to gather fresh, local foods.
“We offer some educational programing in Cleveland city and charter schools,” Anderson said. The Mighty Locavores program is a curriculum developed by one of the NUFM board members, George Cannon, a former science teacher. The engaging 20-minute program introduces healthy eating and where food comes from to students, kindergarten through second grade. “It helps them in developing analytical thinking,” Anderson added.
Anderson also has been working with state representatives on exploring the idea that SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits should be dedicated to buying fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy and grain. “Educating people how to cook is something we also pay attention to,” she said. “Without this skill, people can’t eat good food.” The Chef at the Market program has brought in local chefs to conduct demonstrations using produce from the vendors. Chefs also use the NUFM to discover sources for products to use in their restaurants, which she feels has helped fuel the local food movement.
Authenticity and accountability is key to the success of NUFM. “When we first started the markets, we used New York’s Green Market and the California Certified Farmers Market Program as our model,” Anderson said. “The backbone in these markets is that they certify their vendor farmers ensuring that they grow what they sell.” The NUFM itself has certified more than 300 farms to participate in its producer-only farmers markets. “We go out to the farms and talk with the farmers, look at seed orders, look at the land and have a dialogue with them to talk about best agricultural practices and how to market their product,” she said. The certification ensures NUFM customers of safe and sustainable growing practices and that the food is indeed grown locally.
People ultimately come to the markets for fresh, seasonal and local foods and the growth of offerings has been exponential. Anderson used to dream of having a yogurt vendor join the mix, and last season Velvet View Farmstead Yogurt joined the roster.
“Artisan cheeses are becoming more sophisticated and on the cutting edge of what’s happening nationally,” Anderson said. “We see more representation from members of the Ohio Cheese Guild at many locations. Our customers are aware of the quality of what our vendors sell and their authenticity.”
In addition to the broad selection at the markets, Anderson still keeps a wish list of foods she would like to bring in for customers: roasted red peppers, more charcuterie and crème fraiche. “We have one farmer developing a whole line of dried beans for high protein meals,” she said, “and there are a lot more vegan and vegetarian customers than ever before.”
“Educating more farmers and keeping them up-to-date on the Food Modernization Act, which ensures the country’s food supply is safe by preventing contamination, is also part of our mission,” Anderson said. “Growing new farms that are sustainable that can be passed down and livable incomes is vital, too,” she added. “We’re seeing a trend now that children of farmers are interested in coming back to the farm after they graduate from agricultural school. They see farming in their future.”
Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermilion.