One my recent delights was finding an interview with Alice Waters in the May-June 2017 Harvard Business Review. Waters is the owner of the famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, CA and one of my culinary heroes. Her kitchen genius aside, what makes her amazing in my mind is her activism. She is the founder of the Edible Schoolyard (ESY) Project: what began as a schoolyard garden and small on-site teaching kitchen at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley is now a model for similar programs all over the country and even internationally. At the core of ESY is the belief that children—in fact anyone—will choose healthy food and make inherently green choices if good food is accessible, well prepared and creates a significant connection between food and diner. Beyond promoting the idea of choosing fresh, local food over processed food, Waters has created a legacy of education, gratitude, appreciation and accessibility. And, believe it or not, part of that legacy is indirectly alive and well in Edwardsville, IL.
If you ask the dedicated staff of the Land of Goshen Community Market to explain the goals of their popular “Market Sprouts” program, they will tell you it is about one, over-arching idea: Harvesting a Healthy Community. True to the spirit of Alice Waters’ vision, Market Sprouts, created in 2011, is a community-based children’s program offered at The Land of Goshen Community Market with the purpose of educating children and their adults on the importance of eating healthy, local produce. Market Sprouts reaches its goal by offering weekly educational activities such as taste testings, interactive exhibits, demonstrations and hands-on activities. All these activities are designed to foster strong relationships between consumers, area farmers, local artisans and small businesses.
Benefits to the community are many: increased access to nutritious, locally grown fruits and vegetables; increased market attendance within the community; promotion of sustainable, healthy eating habits; agricultural education; community exposure; and a welcome local economic boost for vendors. Most importantly, the educational experience translates directly into healthy behavioral change. According to farmer surveys, four out of five “sprouts” families visiting their booths as part of the program end up purchasing local goods.
I, for one, was impressed this past Saturday when I heard a young woman of about seven or eight years of age politely ask a vendor, “What chemicals do you use on your carrots?” Lucky for her my friends Lony and Bob don’t spray their carrots with anything but water. She then stepped up with her money and purchased her carrots, with her mom smiling on.
Learning that Is Fun and Meaningful
Each week, the market features a different vendor at the Market Sprouts tent, where sprouts taste test an approved, raw crop (no preservatives or additives) donated by the weekly featured farmer. Market Sprouts staff members engage young visitors with fun facts about the crop and then present each visitor with a challenge or activity, which leads them out into the market to meet with the farmer. For example, Market Sprouts might be asked to find the answer to a question or complete a scavenger hunt. Sprouts are particularly delighted with an activity called “Super Fruit or Veggie Hunt,” in which the weekly featured crop is turned into a superhero hidden within the featured farmer’s booth.
Throughout the season, Sprouts play rounds of Market BINGO, which introduces them to farmers and vendors who do not offer produce but offer other local services, attend “story time” with the Library, take kid-friendly Yoga classes, and participate in several art projects, like painting with produce, sun printing, tie-dying, painting pumpkins and making jewelry from gourds.
Engaging with farm animals is an important part of the Market Sprouts program, too. Takeaways include a new understanding of how animals provide our food, why they deserve our respect and the ways in which we must be responsible caretakers of these animals. So in addition to encouraging sound nutrition and local food appreciation, soft lessons on ethics and critical thinking also become part of the experience.
The centerpiece of Market Sprouts, however, is the community four-square garden run by Farmer Joe Carrington, owner and operator of Happy Joe’s Farm in Edwardsville. Within the neatly tended plots, Sprouts grow their own veggies, making a weekly visit to water and weed. They experience the magic of planting a seed, watching it grow into a plant and harvesting their food. They learn the work that goes into farming, the science of soil, water, and air, and the joy of eating what they grow.
Recipe for Success
Similar to the experience of participants in Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project, Market Sprouts has done nothing but…well…sprout. Since its inception, attendance has increased yearly, from 293 total visitors in the first year to more than 1,000 total visitors in 2016. Weekly visits have increased by 118 percent since starting the program. One reason for the growing popularity is the decision to extend the market season based on overall community demand. In 2017, the Land of Goshen Community Market began a once-per-month winter indoor market, adding seven extra Market Sprout program days, going from 20 to 27.
But perhaps the most important factor in Market Sprout success is the ongoing, dedicated work of staff and volunteers. The birth of Market Sprouts originated with Sherry Chase in 2010, when she applied for a grant to start a children’s program at the market that was to be specialized in educating youth on the importance of eating fresh, local produce.
Candice Watson, who holds a degree in psychology and sociology and has experience in training, sales, and education, along with Megan Busacker, a registered dietician, handled the project’s development. Though Megan left Market Sprouts a few years ago, staffers credit her knowledge, research, organizational skills and creativity for helping them initiate this great program and making it what it is today. Megan is still a vendor at the market, selling wonderful produce from her family farm, Looking Glass Prairie and raising her own little sprouts. The gap left by Megan was then filled by Candice.
In 2015, Tara Pohlman stepped in to keep Market Sprouts running (among other things) while Candice took time off to have a baby. Tara brought so much talent and dedication to the position that she continues as a market manager along with Candice.
Relative newcomer Amy Hillmer, also a registered dietician, is a program and research assistant and an activity coordinator. Amy began as a volunteer for the market while in college and just couldn’t bear to leave.
For the past four years Patty Cook was another dedicated assistant who contributed significantly to keep the program going, even volunteering her granddaughters to help out. Patty has retired from the Market, but just as she was leaving, another significant turn of events gave Market Sprouts a boost that secured its future: In 2016, The Goshen Market Foundation was born, which has made great progress in bringing attention and community support to Market Sprouts, which is a donation-based program. The foundation was able to procure assistance from Edwardsville Rotary, their largest monetary supporter to date, donating $2,000 to the program and making the sprouts garden a possibility.
And this crop continues to thrive—the future looks bright in Edwardsville as a sprouting generation learns the value of community and the joys of growing and eating healthy, safe and sustainable food. If you believe in the vision of Alice Waters, if you care about community and the future that rests in the hands of these little Market Sprouts, you might consider a small donation to the program. It’s easy. Follow the link and click that donate button.