What Our Farmers Market Can Learn from Green City Market

GCM has become a powerful force for buying local fruit, vegetables and other products

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By David Hammond

Green City Market is the premier Chicago farmers' market and probably the most culturally significant farmers’ market in the Midwest.  It’s impact is wide and powerful, and whether you live in Chicago or not, you’re feeling it, 

Holding  a strong line on keeping vendors local, and serving as perhaps the most commonly used storehouse for Chicago chefs, GCM has become a powerful force for buying local fruit, vegetables and other products. 

Last weekend, I walked the market with Sarah Stegner, GCM founder and chef at Prairie Fire and Prairie Grass. This tour started me thinking about what we might learn from the GCM and apply to the Oak Park Farmers’ Market.

There’s a lot of freshly prepared food available at GCM: burgers, farm egg sandwiches, tamales and ice cream. We do have doughnuts at the OPFM, and the notoriously long lines are evidence that there’s an interest in freshly made food that people can eat on-site. GCM’s prepared foods utilize sustainable, local ingredients, which is good for the other vendors and educational for eaters, like me. Aside from the late-in-the-season corn boils and stone soup, OPFM doesn’t serve much prepared food, and there could be demand for that. Some enterprising Oak Park vendors might do well to investigate that.

There are signs on the booths at GCM indicating how many miles the food has traveled to get to us. Politically correct? Yes, and somewhat precious, but also educational. It’s good to consider the energy it takes to get us food.  Food miles are not the only consideration in a buying decision, of course, and it’s true that some of what we regularly eat (oranges, for instance, and coffee) is usually coming from relatively far away. Nonetheless, taking into account the environmental impact of our food choices is a good thing. Putting up a few simple signs could be an effective way to alert the public to the carbon footprint of their food.

The signs, of course, are part of the larger educational outreach initiatives of the GCM, which include chef demos and children’s programs designed to inform and get people interested in where food comes from and how good food can be when it’s sourced locally.

GCM management seems always to be thinking of new ways to integrate the market with the surrounding community.  For instance, GCM has established a garden at Lincoln Park Zoo as part of a cooperative relationship with University of Illinois. That kind of outreach is a way to knit the market with the community. Could something similar be done in Oak Park? Why not?

This sense of community around their market was also evidenced last week’s at the GCM’s Chef’s BBQ Benefit, which is attended by some of Chicago’s finest chefs who prepare food onsite using ingredients from the market. The proceeds go to support the market, and we’ve been going for the last four years or so. The food is fantastic, and although the prices have gone up in the past few years (it’s now $100 ticket), it is still a value and a fine way to taste, in one evening, food from Chicagoland’s best restaurants (Chef Leonard Hollander of Marion Street Cheese Market was there, serving some spectacular pulled goat shoulder on grits with huitlacoche and onions). I honestly don’t know how feasible it would be to have a BBQ-type event at the Oak Park Farmers’ Market, and we certainly don’t have anywhere near the number of chefs that they in Chicago, but some kind of benefit event in the evening would be an excellent way to reinforce the idea that the market is a kind of community, more than just a place to drop by to pick up product once a week.

Our Saturday and Wednesday markets are an incredible local resource. Still, we can take some hints from the market in Lincoln Park to strengthen ours in Oak Park.

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