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Support year-round Farmers' Market

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 23, 2011 7:20 AM

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For many residents, Iowa City farmers' markets are a cornerstone of summer.

The rows of vendors offering farm-fresh produce, baked goods, and crafts from the eastern half of the state are slated to expand the social hub of the Farmers' Market to year-round — or at least to give it a test run.

Over the next month, three experimental Saturday markets will be held at Wood Elementary on Iowa City's Southeast Side. The markets are expected to draw the panoply of farmers, bakers, and craftsmen that make the summer market so alluring. If they draw enough of a crowd, the city will join other Iowa towns in creating a permanent year-round market.

This would be a great move on the city's part. Iowa City residents and University of Iowa students should take full advantage of the market test run to encourage it as a permanent fixture.

"I love the idea of a year-round Farmers' Market," UI Office of Sustainability Director Liz Christiansen told the DI Editorial Board on Tuesday. Christiansen has followed the trend of interest in sustainable food, and she thinks the market's expansion would play into that neatly. Pig farmers such as Dennis Rehberg tap into Iowa City's food culture, selling pork raised free of hormones and antibiotics; the Farmers' Market wares come from nearby, lessening greenhouse-gas-producing transit.

A 2003 study by Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture calculated the average distance an ear of conventional source sweet corn travels prior to purchase: 1,426 miles. The average local ear of sweet corn travels only 20 miles in Iowa before it is purchased, saving the fuel necessary for about 1,400 miles of transportation (and the fuel necessary to preserve freshness, too).

Food sold at farmers' markets also tends to be devoid of the additives and preservatives that add empty calories to packaged food; ready-to-eat wares are typically made in small-scale kitchens that avoid industrial ingredients.

"I think that certainly there's a need for affordable, healthy food available," Christiansen said.

The other upside to local food, of course, is a boost to the local economy. A year-round Farmers' Market does not cost the city any substantial amount of money, but it provides farmers in the Iowa City area with another place to sell their produce.

The location of the Wood Marketplace makes it a great resource for nonstudent residents who can reap all of its benefits. But students, too, should take advantage of the opportunity to participate in the local economy — and get closer to the community. As Christiansen pointed out, farmers' markets are social events: places in which people converge and are encouraged to talk with each other and ask questions about the wares on sale. Students tired of often-monotonous meal plans, or students who live on their own, might relish an alternative to Hy-Vee, the Bread Garden, or New Pioneer Co-op.

Because of Iowa's famous seasonality, the winter market would not offer the same bounty of vegetables available in the summer. It's still worth investigation and investment, though: The home-canned produce, herbs, baked goods, and meat products stocked by vendors will still provide a breath of fresh air amid more conventional grocery stores. And while the location is a bit of a hike from the student-dominated downtown, the Lakeside city bus runs hourly on Saturdays and stops less than a block away. A $1.50 round trip isn't an excruciating price, even tacked on the cost of the goods themselves.

"Accessibility and availability of [the market] would be the limiter," Christiansen said. "But if there's public transit out there, I think you'd see students interested and there to support it."

In a town with a large divide between students and year-round residents, farmers' markets offer a unique way of connecting with the city and county community. Students should explore the Wood market's test run; they might be surprised by its diverse benefits.


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