As spring weather emerges from beneath the cold icy grip of Chicago’s winter, neighborhoods come alive. Residents throughout the city get fresh vegetables at any number of city-sponsored farmers markets.
But in Chicago’s historic Austin neighborhood, the West Side farmers market doesn’t open until mid-July, which is late in both the fresh market and farming seasons.
The Austin Farmers Market, located at Madison Street and Central Avenue in the Emmet Math, Science & Technology Academy parking lot, will open for business July 10, running every Saturday from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m. until Oct. 16.
Meanwhile, in nearby Oak Park, the farmers market will open later this month, as will markets at the Federal Plaza (May 18 at Adams & Dearborn), Daley Plaza (May 13 at Washington and Dearborn), Lincoln Park (May 15 at Armitage & Orchard), Division Street (May 15 at Division & Dearborn) and Beverly (May 16 at 95th and Longwood).
Once it starts in July, the Austin market will sell mostly vegetables, supplied mainly from the Pembroke Farmer’s Cooperative, based in Kankakee, Ill.
“It’s actually a very small market,” said Yescenia Mota, a Chicago Farmers Market project coordinator. “That market competes with Oak Park, which is on the same day and probably less than a mile away. We’ve been trying to recruit farmers, we’ve been trying to do different things at the office, but it hasn’t been working.”
The city is looking for a different location for the Austin Farmers Market because the school parking lot is tricky to access, said Mota.
The Illinois Department of Agriculture also helps promote farmers markets state-wide. It gathers information on known markets and compiles a master list that is available on various Web sites. However, it’s up to residents to search through the available information to find the market nearest them.
Delayne Reeves of the Agriculture Department’s marketing and promotions division said the state is very limited in how it can promote individual markets. There are more than 300 markets state-wide, with different levels of sophistication.
In addition to a low turnout, the current economic downturn seems to be hurting farmers markets in lower-income Chicago neighborhoods.
“Gas is more expensive, as is buying insurance and paying help,” Mota said. “Sometimes the price point can make or break the market.”
Austin lacks large chain grocery stores forcing residents to rely on small corner marts and convenience stores. It is one of many neighborhoods on the South and West sides in the heart of the food desert.
“There are a lot of initiatives going on, at the state and federal level, to try to address that issue,” Reeves said. “It’s a real challenge in a lot of different communities.”
Mota said in other Chicago neighborhoods, the community is very involved in promoting the market. In Lincoln Square, she said, the alderman comes out to support the farmers and residents.
“It would be nice if the community reached out,” Mota said “It’s an ongoing process.”