Ag coordinators connecting students to local food, farmers markets


Shelby County Ag Literacy Coordinator Kathleen Agney is introducing third graders to fresh, local food while also incorporating farmers markets into her lessons.

That’s music to Janie Maxwell’s ears.

Maxwell, Illinois Farmers Market Association (IFMA) executive director, spoke to about 100 coordinators throughout the state about the benefits of local food, farmers markets and opportunities for collaboration with Illinois Agriculture in the Classroom (IAITC).Ag coordinators connecting students to local food

Maxwell sees a chance to make an impression on children through IAITC and also possibly reach their parents through lesson plans that involve the benefits of local food and farmers markets.

“The opportunities are endless,” Maxwell said. “This whole benefit cycle, local food and just really encouraging participation for building healthy, vibrant communities is really our goal. And I think partnerships like this is a great place to start. Kids are the most impressionable, I think, and we have a great opportunity to (reach) them as we think about the future.”

IAITC has begun working with IFMA to provide farmers market- and specialty crop-themed ag literacy resources to their members and to connect them with their county ag literacy coordinators and county Farm Bureaus for continued ag literacy collaborations at the local level.

During the meeting, Agney shared how she brings in produce — such as fresh horseradish and sweet corn — to her classrooms during her discussions on specialty crops, and asks the students to find their local farmers markets on a map to help increase their awareness. Many of her students aren’t familiar with farmers markets.

“They just thought when they heard the word ‘market,’ that it’s a supermarket or grocery store,” she told FarmWeek, adding she then explains to them the producers sell directly to the consumers from stands.

Aside from farmers market food being fresher than what is typically sold in stores, Maxwell added the markets have a number of other benefits, including infusing more dollars into local communities, keeping neighbors in business and offering a venue for social interaction.

Also, for every dollar spent at a farmers market, 97 cents goes directly to the producer, she said. And according to USDA, for every dollar spent, about $1.80 goes back to that community because people stop to shop for other items on their way to and from the market.

Additionally, food sold at farmers markets has typically been harvested or produced within 24 hours, helping ensure peak freshness.

“Fewer people touch your food,” Maxwell added. “And you’re contributing to the survival of a vibrant local food system.”

The pandemic demonstrated the importance of local food sources as retailers experienced hiccups with the supply chain.

“People are much more interested in where their food comes from, and we haven’t seen a decrease in demand for local since the pandemic. If anything, it keeps going up,” she said, adding she measures interest based on how many calls she receives inquiring about starting a farmers market.

“And I probably had at least six or seven this year, added to the 300-plus we already have,” she said.

Unfortunately, farmers markets typically don’t follow the school year schedule. Maxwell also pointed out while production “skyrockets” in September and October, farmers market attendance tends to plummet.

“So, one of the things that we can think about as a collaborative effort is how to get the message out and the benefits of shopping at farmers markets and getting some of our families to markets to support them during those seasons when we’re at the height of production,” she said.

Other collaboration ideas include field trips, bringing a local vendor into the classroom, fresh food tastings, on-site programming, farm to school programs and talking to a farmer.

Several coordinators in the audience shared how they’ve integrated local food/farmers markets into lessons, including food tastings and putting students’ artwork on display at local farmers markets.

More farmers markets also are starting to include children’s activities. “The whole recycling movement was a campaign that was focused on kids,” Maxwell said. “Kids got their parents to recycle and that’s how recycling started. I think we have a tremendous challenge and opportunity to potentially get more local food consumed by exposing our kids to it and then having them take the parents to the farmers market.”


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