While I was on a vacation in Kauai, my husband and I visited the Princeville Botanical Gardens, and part of the guided tour is getting a taste of the fruits and organic chocolate that grows on the property. Our lovely guide, Walter, used this fun term: “taste travel.” Isn’t it time to pick out a fruit or vegetable you aren’t’ all that familiar with and sample a new recipe? Since we’re headed into Farmer’s Market Season, I asked my nutrition buddy, Laurie Schubert to share some insights.
I love spring, because it means that good seasonal food is starting to grow! Spring is the best time to either plant food of your own or to explore the farmers markets near you. Farmers markets are a fantastic way to eat seasonally, eat locally and try new foods. Most markets carry multiple types of foods and also act as a meeting place, education opportunity, and place to volunteer. It’s also the easiest way to connect with the people that grow or produce your foods. To find a market near you and explore the bounty, check out Illinois MarketMaker, run by the University of Illinois.
So when might you attend your local farmers market? The traditional market time is Saturday early morning through lunch. But as more towns and organizations start their own markets, they often open during a weekday or weekend afternoon or evening. So if your local market’s time doesn’t match your availability, look around for one that does. Also, many organizations like hospitals and universities now hold their own markets as a public service to their employees, patients, students and the local residents. These can be great places to find educational sessions, screening programs, and cooking demonstrations!
The foods sold are whatever is in season, so there will be different taste treats every time you go. May is a great month for greens and asparagus, spring onions and herbs like sorrel, and a few early flowers like irises and daffodils. June is full of strawberries so fresh and ripe that they perfume the car! I never arrive home with as many strawberries as I purchased. You’ll also see early produce such as sugar snap peas, green beans, and tender broccoli, and you might buy other berries and cherries as well. July is when the tables start groaning under the weight of our Illinois bounty. Almost every vegetable you can imagine is for sale, resulting in a rainbow of colors and textures. Berries are out in force and some melons and stone fruits, like peaches and plums, tempt us with luscious flavors. August is prime time for corn, tomatoes and peaches, but it’s much like July with so many options it’s hard to choose! September brings apples and pears, winter squash, onions and garlic, and as much cabbage and cauliflower as you can eat. October pops with the color of pumpkins, as well as late-planted herbs and summer vegetables. This is a great time to stock up on winter squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes, onions and garlic. For more information on seasonal vegetables in Illinois, check this PDF from the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
Some markets also allow people to make and sell cheese, meats, baked goods and honey, jams and jellies. This is great, since it broadens the variety of local foods and supports small entrepreneurs while they’re building their businesses. Illinois laws provide guidance on what can and can’t be sold at farmer’s markets and how it must be handled. Both the entrepreneurs, known as cottage food operators, and the processing facilities must be licensed and have food safety policies in place. You’ll also notice that vendors selling meats and cheeses must keep them cold and sell out of a refrigerated cooler so your food will be safe. Also, an Illinois law from 2014, Public Act 098-0660, developed product origin requirements so that customers know where the food they’re buying was made or grown. All produce sellers must display a placard with the name and address of the farm or producer. This makes it very easy to spot “re-sellers,” who buy a case of apples from Washington State at the grocery store to sell at the market. The Illinois Farmer’s Market Association is a great place to find out more about your local market.
Some people like bargains, and while you can find bargains at your local farmers market, you’re also paying for those heirloom and handcrafted products. If cost is a concern, some farmers markets accept payment via LINK EBT and Farmers Market Nutrition Program vouchers for WIC participants and senior citizens. Look for signs indicating that such forms of payment are accepted.
Our farmers markets really are a great meeting place that shows off the best of our communities! A few of the older markets are practically cultural icons. For an interesting Saturday morning, check out the Green City Market in Lincoln Park in Chicago or the Madison Farmers Market on Capitol Square in Madison, WI. I’ve also heard raves about the fresh doughnuts at the Oak Park Farmers Market, proceeds of which go to a local church and their programs. But I still think that the fresh, in season strawberries win over doughnuts every time!
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