Local Hero Profile: Holyoke Farmers’ Market

Local Hero Profile by Ellery Pool, TerraCorps Service Member

A place for community gathering, discussion, and celebration while also providing fresh, local food to everyone – that is the Holyoke Farmers’ Market. Starting as an unofficial gathering of farmers selling their goods in front of City Hall in 1913, the Holyoke Farmers’ Market became an official market in 1979 and has since become a vital resource in the community, providing both food and a place of belonging.

The market is run as a collaboration between the Holyoke Chamber of Commerce and the Holyoke Food and Equity Collective, with John “JR” Rivera of the latter serving as the market manager. Rivera grew up in Holyoke, but did not know the market existed until the pandemic prompted him to find new ways to serve his community. Once he discovered it, he got involved in any way he could, taking up the role of market manager midway through the summer season in July 2021. He continues to run the winter season now.

I spoke with Rivera about the market’s roles as a social hub and source of fresh food in Holyoke, along with his hopes for the future of the market. As he describes it, it’s  a “communal place of gathering” where everyone can “not only buy produce, but support local businesses, talk about local businesses, even talk about politics – local, national, whatever it might be.” With its longstanding history, the market is a dependable event in the community that residents can anticipate every week.

Atlas Farm Booth
Photo Credit: K Givner

Rivera explains that Holyoke is a “city of festivals” that celebrates the community throughout the year with events like Celebrate Holyoke, A Taste of South Holyoke, and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and the market has become one of these communal events. “The child in me is excited every week,” Rivera says, demonstrating that the market is a source of fun for all.

In addition to providing a gathering spot, the market is both the site of and result of community organization and collaboration. Rivera loves seeing that the people in power in the area, “whether that’s state representatives, city councilors, community leaders [come] together to utilize the market as a space of ‘what can we dream of within our community?’” And the dream of organizations from Holyoke and greater Hampden County collaborating for the market has become a reality. The Holyoke Chamber of Commerce and Holyoke Food and Equity Collective work together to run the market, but Rivera gladly points out how it’s supported by relationships with local businesses like Crave Food Truck (and now brick and mortar restaurant), food-related nonprofits, the city councilors of Holyoke, and other farmers’ markets. The entire community is rallying around the market to ensure that it reaches its potential.

Atlas Farm Booth
Photo Credit: K Givner

Of course, the market also  feeds the community and helps people build relationships with local farmers. Atlas Farm in South Deerfield and D&R Farm in Hampden have both been “anchor vendors” at the market for years, providing a consistent presence for customers to recognize. Atlas Farm always has new and exciting vegetables to try, and D&R farm has products like summer squash available all year thanks to their greenhouses. Farmers from Nuestras Raíces in Holyoke also sell at the market in the summer, bringing the produce needed to make sofrito and also selling jarred sofrito that Rivera says can easily be stored and frozen for months.

D & R Farm Booth
Photo credit: K Givner

Produce at the market is made more affordable thanks to the variety of nutrition assistance programs that can be used to pay for food at the market. The market accepts Senior and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) Farmers’ Market Coupons, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – formerly Food Stamps) benefits, and HIP (Healthy Incentives Program) benefits. Let’s Move Hampden County 5210, a health-focused organization originally based in Holyoke, is also providing $20 vouchers to use at the market for new customers.

Let’s Move Hampden County 5210 Table
Photo Credit: K Givner

What is extra accessible about the market is that the market itself is registered with the state as a HIP-eligible vendor, which means that customers can purchase fruits and vegetables from any farm at the market and use HIP money to pay for it. HIP is a program that provides $40-$80 per month in free extra SNAP money for SNAP recipients to spend on locally-grown fruits and vegetables.

The number of HIP-eligible locations in the state is limited, so having the entire market able to take HIP opens the door for more customers to access healthy local produce. Meanwhile, many farmers – for example, those from Nuestras Raíces – are not able to accept HIP on their own, so being at the market allows them to sell their produce to a customer base that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. This situation is a win-win-win for the farmer, the customer, and our food system. The farmers can sell more produce, the customers have access to more produce, and the money stays in the Pioneer Valley.

Rivera envisions a future where the market, along with other community organizations, can continue transforming the food landscape of Holyoke for the better. He wants to “make Holyoke a food oasis instead of a food desert” by providing fresh, local food for the entire Holyoke community at the market. With the support already here for the market from community leaders and organizations, it is not hard to imagine his dream becoming reality!

The Holyoke Winter Farmers’ Market is currently running on Saturdays, 10am-2pm inside the War Memorial Building on 310 Appleton Street in Holyoke. The remaining dates for the season are February 19th, March 5th, and March 19th.

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