Columnist Claire Morenon: Winter farmers’ markets in the new year

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 22, 2019, by Claire Morenon

In January, when the hubbub of the holiday season has died down and the long slog of winter starts to take its toll, many of us are looking to establish new, healthy habits — often in the form of a New Year’s resolution.

I’ve been thinking about the patterns of the year and about the ways that our fall and winter touchstones tie our modern lives to ancient traditions which, in turn, are bound to planetary movement and the ways that seasonal shifts affect our bodies and minds. In November, despite living in an industrial society, we still celebrate the harvest in the form of Thanksgiving, and December brings a cluster of religious holidays that invite light into the shortest days of the year. Just as we start to settle into the depths of winter, which comes even as the days start inching ever longer, we ring in a new year. The turning of the calendar invites contemplation, intention and hope — and when better for that than the cold days and long nights of January?

For many of us, New Year’s has become a moment to take a quick scan of the things we like least about ourselves and to set a goal of exorcising those perceived flaws. But maybe this year, we can honor what the season offers us by reflecting on our own and our communities’ needs and committing to new habits to meet those needs.

Food is inextricably tied to these seasonal markers, of course, and the local foods that are available during the winter are perfectly synced with what our bodies need this time of year. We’re lucky to have winter farmers’ markets open throughout the season and across our region (in Amherst, Greenfield, Northampton, Springfield and Westfield), and they are piled high with exactly the beautiful, nourishing food you are probably craving right now. There’s no better place to pick up ingredients for the warming stews and roasts of winter or to find freshly harvested, nutrient-dense greens like kale and spinach. You’ll also find fruit, cheese, eggs, maple syrup, honey, mushrooms, herbal teas, jam, pickles, baked goods and plenty more.

If you aren’t a regular winter farmers’ market shopper or have never been to a winter market before, you might be surprised at how a market stop can bring pleasure to your routine Saturday errands. When you’re there, consider how the stunning array of seasonal, locally grown offerings could meet your winter-specific needs: mulled cider for a midwinter gathering of loved ones? Ingredients for a vegetable-packed soup to take the chill off after a day of sledding and snowmen? A juicy roast for Sunday dinner, or kale, apples and carrots for juicing? Or both!

The winter markets are more than a shopping destination; they are also places of connection and community. Perhaps another winter need is a regular reason to get out of the house and visit a warm spot with lots of friendly faces.

We can’t talk about the bounty of winter farmers’ markets without addressing the widespread hunger in our communities. For people who are eligible for SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps), the statewide Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) — which offers an instant rebate when shoppers use SNAP to buy fruits and vegetables directly from participating local farmers — has been enormously important to making locally grown food financially accessible. Each of the winter markets has vendors who are equipped to process SNAP and HIP, and the program has been immensely important to those farmers, too.

Because the state funding isn’t yet equal to demand for the program, HIP is scheduled to pause at the end of February. Meanwhile, the federal government shutdown has introduced new uncertainty about SNAP benefits in the coming months. In addition to participating in advocacy efforts to fund HIP and to end the government shutdown, you can help spread the word about HIP so that people who are eligible for this program can take full advantage of it before it pauses after Feb. 28 and when it opens up again in the spring.

The new year gives each of us the opportunity to think about the ways that we mark the seasons, and how that could mirror the rhythms in seasonal foods. See if you can make space in your schedule to visit a winter market, if you haven’t before, or to stop in more regularly, and consider how you can use your New Year’s resolution to feed and expand the things you value most for yourself and for your neighbors.

Claire Morenon is communications manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).