Farmers Market menu: quality food, a convivial setting

Winter Farmers Market: A powerful opportunity for civic engagement.Winter Farmers Market: A powerful opportunity for civic engagement.

Last Saturday the weather was cold and damp, but I found a good place to get warm: the Dorchester Winter Farmers Market at the Great Hall in Codman Square. Continuing through March 19, the Great Hall will be open to the public on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., thanks to the hospitality of the Codman Square Health Center, the lead sponsor that donates the services of staff members who help set up and break down the market stalls.

I went for the fresh vegetables and bread and pastry (everything is organic), but got a lot more: The Market is also a powerful opportunity for civic engagement. Coordinators Cynthia Loesch, Annika Nielsen, and Jerry Samy are bringing all of Dorchester’s summer markets together to take turns hosting a winter market at the Great Hall. The schedule promises some interesting surprises as each week a different group will be representing the unique qualities of their respective neighborhoods. The whole package is really more like a mini-symposium on all things Dorchester, beginning with what we eat.

I was able to make a personal connection with the people behind the products that I purchased: Richard Pray of Oakdale Farms in Rehoboth; Tonya Claire Johnson of Ancient Bakers; Mavis Hicks of Beauty and Simplicity handcrafted skin products; and Jo-Ann Silva-Winbush, of Codman Crafters. After I finished my shopping, I went around and met some of the guest stars of the week.

Sebastian Villa from Breakthrough Greater Boston was manning the reception desk and Grantley Payne, Healthy Dorchester Coordinator at Bowdoin Street Health Center, was acting as DJ. Members of Bold Teens were working the resource tables, popping corn, or selling Iggy’s Bread. Molly Warner, a baby-toting nutritionist from the Uphams Corner Health Center, came in. She was there to connect with someone from the Daily Table, a not-for-profit retail store on Washington Street that offers a variety of affordable foods. Molly likes what they are doing and had made a point of stopping by to offer her assistance.

Traci Brown sat behind a table strewn with the Lego blocks that she uses to illustrate complex models of chemical bonding. She is a scientist who came up with the “Science Days at Dorchester Winter Market” feature, which presents the basic science behind such things as air pollution, how our lungs function, and hula hooping. While she is at it, Traci is ready to debunk any climate-change deniers who might happen to come along. At the next table was Ms. Taz Register, CEO and Founder of “Just Wanna Live Right.” She is reaching out to people, women in particular, to help them develop more healthy and positive lifestyles.

I said hello to Charlie Vlahakis of the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation, the largest property owner in Codman Square. I also met Jenny Silverman from the Dorchester Community Food Coop, the organization that started the winter market four years ago. Jenny was there to promote Co-op membership and to talk about plans for a community-owned grocery store in Four Corners. Slated to open in 2017, it will be a full time operation with a mission to provide healthy, affordable food to people living in Dorchester. To learn more, go to info@dorchesterfoodcoop.com

Farmers markets are great, but the problem around here is that they have been a seasonal luxury. Now that the Codman Square Winter Farmers Market is up and running, the Dorchester Community Food Coop can focus on creating opportunity and making it possible for people to enjoy the benefits of neighborhood farmers markets throughout the year.

Massachusetts ranks first in the nation for a lot of things, but when it comes to availability of food, we rank 48th. The following data were put out by the Mass. Public Health Association: Across the state, there is one supermarket for every 10,000 people. In Dorchester, that miserable statistic is doubled: one supermarket for every 20,000 people. This situation poses dire consequences for the health and well being of our community. For people in some areas, it is akin to trying to get food while being marooned on a deserted island.

That this situation exists is preposterous, especially in light of the recent push for expanding development in Dorchester. Then again, maybe it’s expected that in the future, everybody will simply edge a BMW into the traffic and head uptown to Trader Joe’s.

The reality of today is that many Dorchester residents who do not own cars are forced to go to street corner bodegas for their food. While good enough in a pinch, these “variety” stores are not stocked with a lot of healthy choices. The hard-working people who operate these businesses do not have the space or the resources needed to bring fresh food to their customers. As a consequence, too many families are loading up on processed food and sugary treats. That’s how poor eating habits are formed, which accounts in part for the high incidence of obesity and diabetes among the population.

The number of farmers markets is now outstripping the number of supermarkets in Dorchester. The supermarkets are mostly located on main thoroughfares on the periphery of the neighborhoods, far from the crowded streets deep in the center. To fill the gap, farmers markets and other food wagons are going right into those streets to deliver food where it is needed most.

Dorchester boasts a history of food activism, beginning in 1970 when The People First operated a food co-op in Kane Square. By 1979, the Fields Corner Farmers Market was booming; a first in Dorchester, it is still going strong, still using its original sign. Dorchester Garden Lands Preserve and Development Corporation was a pioneer in bringing farmers markets and community gardens into working-class neighborhoods. The 1970s was a good time for community organizing, with lots of young energy making things happen. Today, those kids have white (or at least, gray) hair; luckily, many never left Dorchester and are still working to change the world.

We are experiencing a new wave of community activism on the issue of food, this time driven by health care workers. As I looked around the Great Hall, I noticed that most of the people who had volunteered for the event were full of ’70s-style youthful energy, but they weren’t a bunch of long-haired hippies in army jackets. The young radical of today is well groomed and soft spoken. Most likely, he or she has graduated from college and holds an advanced degree in the social sciences, or maybe global health. They are motivated to act because they know that the work they do will make a real difference in the quality of the lives of the people in their community.

Support your local farmers market in summer and winter; you’ll be helping to build a more sustainable Dorchester!

Thanks to the Bold Teens: Yaira Pears, Keshon Haines, and Aryana Blake, asst. coordinator. A shoutout to Mercedes Person, for handling the produce. Also, many thanks to Sandra Cotterell, CEO of the Codman Square Health Center.