SITKA — When the Sitka Farmers Market started five years ago it was clear the public was ready for it — even if the market had only a handful of vendors in the ANB Hall and the parking lot next door.
Lisa Sadleir-Hart, president of the Sitka Local Foods Network, said it started small, but those involved could see what was possible.
“I remember thinking, ‘This has so much potential,’ and it was so much fun,” Sadleir-Hart said. “People came out when we had only a handful of vendors. There was an overwhelming enthusiasm in the midst of a drenching downpour.”
Sadleir-Hart had a table where she sold products from her kitchen, such as gourmet dog treats and rhubarb barbecue sauce. With the support of the community, three markets were held that year.
“They were so excited to support their neighbors in their endeavors,” she said.
Since 2008 the market has grown steadily, with dozens of vendors offering locally-grown fruit and vegetables, flowers, fish, coffee, craft items, baked goods and prepared foods at six markets per summer. The Katlian Street venue has remained the same, a strategic location where everyone feels welcome, Sadleir-Hart said.
The remaining markets this year are scheduled for Aug. 17, Aug. 31 and Sept. 14.
The first markets gave organizers and supporters a chance to gauge public interest in the program.
“For me it gave us an opportunity to see if it was something that would be supported in the community,” Sadleir-Hart said.
The goal of the Sitka Local Foods Network was to increase the availability of local foods, with the produce from the St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm, another network project, front and center. Sales from the farm’s produce help cover the cost of running the markets.
With the required minimum of six markets a year, the Sitka Farmers Market is able to take WIC farmers market coupons. The Farmers Market also provides extra buying power to those using Electronic Benefit Transfer (food stamps) cards. The state Division of Agriculture provides funds that allow the Farmers Market to allow EBT users to double their buying power on their food purchases, up to $20 per market.
“The EBT ... program has been awesome in how they can get double their money at the market,” said this year’s market co-manager Sabrina Simerol. The WIC and EBT users can purchase most “unprepared” food items including vegetables, bread, biscotti and fish.
Sadleir-Hart said the farmers market provides additional purchasing power while supporting the vendors by increasing the customer base.
She said recent research has shown people will increase their intake of fresh produce when they have more money to spend.
Simerol and the other co-manager, Garrett Bauer, have personally experienced the benefit of this program. As Americorps volunteers, their income is low enough to qualify them for food stamps. They use that benefit at the farmers market to buy healthy food that otherwise would be hard to afford, such as fish and fresh produce.
“It’s the only way to get good local fish if you don’t fish yourself.” Bauer said.
Both Bauer and Simerol come from New England and have had their own experience with farmers markets.
Bauer grew up in New Hampshire, where markets were held throughout the week, rotating from town to town so they wouldn’t compete with each other. He would help one of his friends prepare for market days by picking fresh flowers and vegetables. Bauer studied food systems and food science, and is interested in seeing the ways farmers markets are used to connect people to food.
“It’s not simple, but it’s a good way to get those kinds of connections,” Bauer said. “It’s one of the easiest ways to get locally grown food into people’s hands.”
Simerol, from the Pennsylvania Lehigh Valley, said she has helped out at markets, but her interest is in the public health aspects.
“My interest is in nutrition and public health,” she said. “This has given me the opportunity to expand my experiences and learn other aspects of the food distribution system.”
Both said the Sitka Farmers Market is interesting because of its differences from the ones in the lower states.
Bauer said they’ve seen how organizers here do a lot more for vendors than do those at most other farmers markets, including setting up tables.
“We provide tables and whatever else you need,” Bauer said. “Not many markets that I’ve seen do that. ... This market is really supportive of the vendors, and it’s also pretty big.” Many markets in New Hampshire have only a handful of stands compared to the dozens in Sitka.
He said the local market here has given him a chance to see a farmers market from the ground up.
“How you go from wanting to be at the farmers market to being there and setting up ... I had no idea what that entailed until I had to do that,” Bauer said. “Figuring out space, materials, where they are ...”
“I learned it’s not possible to please everyone,” Simerol said.
The renovation project under way at the ANB Founders Hall complicated the planning for this year’s markets, the organizers said.
“We’ve had to get creative,” Sadleir-Hart said.
Both Simerol and Bauer are involved with the local food assessment work group, which is trying to get a handle on how much locally produced food people consume, how much food people have on hand at home, and how often they take advantage of foods available locally.