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Keeping it fresh and local at Oxford’s Farmers Market

Oxford's weekly farmer's market brings fresh, locally grown food to the community.
Oxford's weekly farmer's market brings fresh, locally grown food to the community.

Memories of holding onto tents because the wind was blowing sideways and rain was pouring down on their booths are still fresh for many vendors. Raindrops ran down their necks as the vendors tried to secure their products in a safe and dry spot. 

But on sunny days, Ross Olson, the market manager, said the Oxford Farmers Market is “like a county fair, a carnival and a big party kind of all wrapped up in one.”

The Oxford Farmers Market, aside from the small but homey MOON Co-Op store, is one of the few opportunities for Oxford residents to buy locally grown food that is fresh and in season. 

Buying food locally has a variety of benefits. 

Customers value seasonal food, full of flavor, just as much as knowing that their product choice helps reduce their carbon footprint and supports sustainable agriculture. The direct contact to the vendor provides opportunities to discover new foods and eat mindfully while supporting local businesses.  

Commonly misconceived, however, is that local food is healthier. 

“In many ways, the impact of local foods on our health is more indirect than we think,”  Paul Reidy, assistant professor in Miami University’s department of kinesiology, nutrition and health, said. 

Oftentimes, people mistake local food to have more nutrients or to be safer than food at chain grocery stores, but there is no research that proves this, Reidy said. While local foods are typically fresher, giving them a greater likelihood that less vitamins have degraded, mineral composition in the food depends on the enrichment of the soil. 

Additionally, local food may not be safer compared to products at chain grocery stores, Reidy said. 

“Although many local producers do have proper food safety practices, there is no guarantee or mandated expensive food safety check,” Reidy said.

But the benefits of local food are more than just physiological, said Reidy, who also participates in the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program offered by Miami’s Institute for Food farm. 

Farmers markets, more than ever before, play a significant role in the American food system. 

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Results from the 2019 Organic Survey show that more than 16,500 farms participate in organic farming. While sales varied by sector, organic commodities overall rose 31% from 2016 to 2019. 

As of 2019 estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are around 8,140 farmers markets in the United States. 

The local food movement

In Oxford, farmers, bakers, brewers, food producers and artisans gather to offer residents and students a variety of produce Saturday mornings year-round from 9 a.m. to noon in the parking lot just north of Memorial Park.

All vendors live within 50 miles, many closer than that, Olson said. They are required to make, bake and grow the products themselves. 

“It’s like an oasis in the middle of a food desert,” said Market Chef Steve Townsend, known to locals as ‘Chef Soupy.’ 

Townsend, a dedicated chef who organizes cooking demonstrations for community members at the market, moved to Oxford in 2006 and loves its small-town charm. He helps the community by sharing his passion for cooking with fresh produce and educates people about the environment. 

“I come and get lettuce because I know it’s straight from the garden as of yesterday,” Sue Holmes, a regular customer for over 20 years, said. 

Other market customers similarly appreciate the variety of produce.

“I always come here to see if I find something that I can’t find elsewhere,” Deborah Lyons, a semi-regular customer and MOON member, said.

She would consider buying more if it were cheaper, but that’s not her main concern, she said.

“[I don’t mind] spending a little extra on some nice bread,” Lyons said.

Many attendees describe Oxford’s farmers market as a friendly and welcoming environment. 

“I love the vibe,” said Dharti Patel, a resin and acrylic artist at the market. “It’s like home. I made so many connections at this place; I keep coming back.”

28-year-old Patel considers herself a local and buys almost all of her groceries at the market, as she prefers fresh and organic produce from local farmers.

Knowing where food comes from is also important to 24-year-old Alexis Gentry, who graduated from Miami in 2019 and lives with her husband in Oxford. 

Gentry owns 59 chickens and sells eggs to family members, friends and a few regular customers. Her eggs have been in high demand ever since she posted about her chickens in the Oxford Talk Facebook group.

“The chickens are so much happier being at a local setting because sometimes they are kept in cages … and they don’t really get the free range,” Gentry said. 

Local food store

The farmers market highly values its partnership with the MOON Co-op, with which it has recently explored the concept of a Tuesday market that runs May through November from 4 to 7 p.m. in its parking lot, in addition to the year-round Saturday uptown market. 

Moving the market geographically has proven beneficial as new vendors, who already attend other farmers markets out of town Saturday, are now able to visit Oxford. The market also attracts more business and attention to the local food store itself. 

MOON Co-op sells anything from local produce, meats and dairy to vegan baked goods. Most of their products come directly from Ohio businesses or farms close by in Indiana. 

“The food system as we know it is broken, and the pandemic showed that,” Todd Hering, a MOON Co-op employee, said. “When Kroger’s aisles were empty, ours were not.”

Hering describes the store’s customers as a diverse clientele, anyone from a “big burly construction worker” to a Miami student would come in and shop at the MOON Co-op.

“People realize what you put in your body is important,” Hering says.

Tom Swing is a former Jungle Jim’s employee who now works at MOON Co-op.

“[The MOON Co-op] reminds me of the old days when all the mom-and-pop grocery stores were around, and people could go in and be greeted and be welcomed,” Swing said.

Looking ahead

The hardest to reach are people with food insecurities or people that financially struggle, Olson said. 

Currently, the farmers market partners with Talawanda Oxford Pantry & Social Services (TOPSS) and is developing a mobile choice pantry to deliver food to families in need twice a week.

The market and the pantry applied through the City of Oxford for federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act , and received about $90,000, Olson said. 

Both organizations invested the money into a large insulated and refrigerated cargo van that is being outfitted and customized right now. 

Olson is looking forward to finding new and innovative ways to incorporate  fresh produce into eligible families and individuals’ diets. They are hoping to start the new project in May or June, he said.