Oversite of the Oak Park Farmers Market, scheduled to open on May 21 in the Pilgrim Church parking lot, 460 Lake St., has transitioned back to the Village of Oak Park’s Public Health department after two-seasons under the supervision of the Development Customer Services Department. The shift, made in 2020, allowed the health department to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has historically staffed and organized the market with the support of a citizen commission.
While this represents a return to normal, the market has not yet found a manager for the upcoming season. Kimball Ingram, market manager for the 2021 season will not be returning. Efforts are currently underway to find a new manager, but the position is proving difficult to fill due to the non-traditional work hours of the part-time role.
Sara Semelka, heath education manager, confirmed during the March 9 farmers market commission meeting, that management will fall to health department staff in the event a market manager is not found. She was clear, however, that it is not too late to onboard a new hire. Dr. Theresa Chapple-McGruder, public health director, echoed the need for a manager and called upon commissioners to use their networks to assist in finding qualified candidates.
“The health department is trying to take on the load of doing the work for the market, but we are not able to really give the market the time that it needs,” said Chapple-McGruder before appealing to commissioners for assistance.
According to the village government HR department, the health department, with a mix of full and part-time positions, remains understaffed. In addition to lacking a market manager, the department is currently short of 3.5 FTE’s in its 11.5 budgeted posts. The department is also 3 FTE’s short on 6.5 temporary FTE posts covered by grants and federal ARPA funds.
On-site food preparation is also under consideration for the 2022 market season, but execution depends on health department staffing. Chapple-McGruder said current staff shortages will make it difficult to complete required food safety inspections. If new hires are made vendor prepared foods will likely be available.
To date 17 vendors have applied and await approval to participate in the 2022 season — 15 are returning vendors. For perspective, in 2019 the Oak Park Farmers Market hosted 28 vendors and the 2021 market had 23 participants.
The market will launch May 21 following a pre-pandemic model. Familiar events including the pie baking contest, stone soup, corn roast, bake sales and Go Green Days will return this season. Donut sales, live music and dining tables will be stationed inside the market as well.
Semelka is optimistic about the return to pre-pandemic norms but cautioned that it will be important for market staff to stay “nimble” in the midst of the pandemic.
“We need to sort of watch how the pandemic evolves,” said Semelka. “It ebbs and flows, as we saw last year.”
During the March 9 meeting, citing personal reasons, Rachel Hahs announced she would be stepping down from her chair position, but will remain an active member of the commission. Hahs has been a part of the commission since 2019 and was elected chair in 2021. An upcoming village board meeting will determine if nominee, Julia Knier, is appointed as chair.