Local residents are joining forces to provide the city with naturally grown food that is fresh and ready for preparation — primarily because of a lack of access to full grocery stores in the downtown Youngstown area.
The Northside Farmers Market, two blocks from Youngstown State University’s campus at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, provides an organic alternative to consumers who are trying to stay away from processed foods.
The market started in 2003 with four scheduled dates to see if the community showed an interest. After an overwhelming response, it expanded to 10 markets in 2004 and 16 in 2008.
Now, it’s open year-round.
It also expanded to the downtown area in 2008, but is open only during the summer at this location.
Every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., the market sells items such as prepared lunches and dinners, pastries, fruits, vegetables and soups. The market is indoors from November to April and is moved outside during the summer.
Renee Mauk, a vendor at the market, has been involved for nearly three years. She said buying food at the market and supporting local urban farmers is a win-win situation for everyone involved.
“[The food] came from my backyard into my kitchen. It didn’t travel on a truck where it loses a lot of nutrients,” Mauk said. “The benefits are huge from that. The carbon footprint is less. You’re doing better for the environment. You’re doing better for this area in general.”
Mauk grows and prepares pastries and treats of all kinds. She has an unwavering dedication to locally grown ingredients.
Her cheesecakes are derived from local goat cheese and eggs, and her cupcakes are made from lavender honey that comes from another vendor.
For Mauk’s business, Can-Tastic, she cans different spreads as well — everything from peppers and salsas to jams and sauces.
Mauk said her mission is to go from farm to table and try to get people to realize that a wealth of great food exists in the area.
As a consumer, Mauk wants to be able to see the person who prepared the food she is buying and learn what ingredients were used.
Jim Converse, the market’s manager, said approximately 300 people shop at the downtown market, and close to 700 people shop at the Elm Street location.
“It helps people all over the city realize the importance of local food, rather than having to buy it from local stores or have it shipped in,” Converse said. “It also gives backyard gardeners the chance to sell their produce.”
He said the market serves as a place for the community to get together and meet other locals while getting access to fresh food without having to drive to farms.
Natalia Lepore Hagan, an Ohio State University student and Youngstown native, is a regular shopper at the market and said she strictly supports local vendors.
“I think it’s really important to be sustained locally. When I’m in Columbus, I’m completely sustained off of the farmers markets,” Hagan said. “When I’m here, I like to do the same thing. It’s just the way my parents raised me.”
Hagan said the market ultimately supports a sense of community.
Everyone there, she said, remembers the shoppers from week to week, and it gives the neighborhood a chance to try something new.
Bringing people from outside of the community is an important aspect in the growth of the market as well, Hagan said.
“Not a lot of people know that things like this exist, and they like to stay where they are,” she said. “If they could branch out, we could support all over. Environmentally, it’s better, and just for a sense of community, it’s wonderful.”
Vendor Marla Herrmann got involved with the market five years ago after planting 300 tomatoes in her backyard. She said the locality of the market is essential.
The market, she said, gives consumers sustainable, healthful food that is easily accessible and right in the middle of town, rather than buying cookies and soda at a convenience store.
“There’s a lot of food deserts around here where they’ve closed grocery stores down and people have to take the bus a long ways to get food, and this is one of those areas,” Herrmann said.
A “food desert” is an urban area with limited accessibility to fresh food supply.
The Food Research and Action Center reported that the Youngstown-Boardman-Warren region was rated the third highest metropolitan statistical area with food hardships in 2009 and 2010.
In the fall, The Vindicator reported that the “Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. shows that most of
Youngstown’s nearly 70,000 residents live more than a half-mile from a grocery store and that 18 percent of these people do not have access to a vehicle to drive them to stores.”
Converse said the market and the Lake to River Cooperative are distributing fresh fruit and produce to Youngstown stores, such as Tom’s Gas and Grocery and University Circle market.
The collaboration has also distributed fruit to local school districts.
Converse said he ultimately hopes to distribute locally grown food from the markets to larger grocers in the area.