With the beautiful, warm weather we’ve been having, farmers markets not only offer a wonderful opportunity to spend time outdoors getting access to fresh and healthy locally-grown produce, but also the chance to see some new and familiar faces from the community.
Pottstown FARM recently launched its 6th season, bringing farm-fresh fruits and vegetables to an urban setting. Located at Smith Plaza in front of Pottstown’s Borough Hall, the market takes place every other Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“The first week we had over 700 visitors,” said Sheila Dugan, the market’s director and one of its founders. “People are very excited to be out.”
In previous years, the farmers market would have about 400 in attendance at each market, so Dugan was pleased with such an impressive attendance on opening day.
“I think we have a really great market this year,” Dugan said of one of the reasons she feels it was so well attended. “We worked really hard to get there.”
Dugan has found that this year, she has had many vendors contacting her to be a part of the market. She has even had to turn some away because what they offer is already represented in the market.
“We try to keep it so the businesses do really well,” she said.
Overall, she feels that people are finally catching on to the fact that the market exists.
“Word is getting out that people are hearing about it and that is super exciting,” she said. “We went years with people saying, ‘we didn’t know you were here’.”
Last year the market remained open despite restrictions due to COVID, but Dugan had to install special fencing to direct traffic in on one side and out another to keep things safe. In addition, masks and social distancing were required, however, things are more back to normal this year.
“We are now encouraging masks but not enforcing it so much,” Dugan said. “We have some vendors who are autoimmune, so we are trying to enforce some safety, but people have to make their own choice.”
Since its inception in 2014, the concept for the market wasn’t centered solely on being a place to offer locally grown food items, but also a place where people could congregate.
“There is a lot of community and people coming together,” Dugan said.
In addition to farmers and artisans, the market offers some unique programs to serve the community to encourage people to start buying healthier and fresher foods.
“We have a program with the SNAP card where if they spend $10 on the SNAP card we give them a $5 coin to spend at the market,” Dugan said.
They also have a Two Bite Club that was established for children aged 12 and under to encourage them to try new foods. At each market, the Club offers a different produce item for them to try and if they do, they get a $5 coin to spend at the market.
“I’m surprised to see that they go for the healthy stuff and not the cookies and cupcakes,” Dugan said, adding that after a child tries a new type of fruit or vegetable that they have never had before, it seems to pique their interest in healthier choices.
“This is a really nice opportunity for these kids to explore these things that they wouldn’t ever see,” she said.
The $5 coins are funded by local grants. The Two Bite Club is sponsored by Pottstown Tower Health and the SNAP program is funded by the Hill School’s Hobart’s Run neighborhood initiative, along with their Student Philanthropy Council.
Dugan aims to help expel what she sees as a misconception people have in that farmers markets are more expensive than supermarkets.
“We want to allow people to know they can purchase healthy foods and they can afford it,” she said. “Hopefully it encourages people to try fresh produce and not go after the less healthy foods.”
In addition, compared to a grocery store, Dugan highlighted that farmers’ markets offer access to unique things you can’t find elsewhere.
“The pepper jams you don’t get to find in a supermarket and the pickled vegetables that are local and the fresh root beer,” she said.
This fall, Dugan looks forward to bringing back a program called Create with the Community where market visitors will get the opportunity to cook with working members of the community, such as policemen, to learn how to use foods they aren’t familiar cooking with.
“The goal is to educate people on how to use things, like squash,” she said.
In addition to the care she expresses towards community members, Dugan also has the same care, concern and consideration for the market’s vendors.
She expressed pride in how she has seen how, over the years, the market has helped some local businesses take off.
“A lot of artisans and local businesses started at the farmers market and now they have flourished,” she said.