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Belleville's farmers market has strong roots

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 30, 2011 - Putting a face on where local food comes from is an important mission for Marjorie Sawicki. And to that end, Sawicki has been involved with The Old Town Market in Belleville since it opened 10 years ago.

"The market opened up after we took a look at The Tower Grove Market. They had a great variety of food venders and a nice park setting," Sawicki said.

As an assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University, Sawicki oversaw the development of the Clayton Farmer's Market, near Forsyth and Maryland, before joining Belleville's Old Town Market.

Sawicki joined with other Belleville residents who decided to open a new grocery shopping experience for locals.

"Well, I've been doing this for many years. The demands are there and the people are there," Philip Elliot, owner of Nature's Way farm said. Elliot was recently added to the growing list of organic offerings at the Old Town Market and thinks that it's important for locals to be educated on food consumption.

"Absolutely, I think it's important, they need to know where their food comes from," Elliot said.

Toni Togias, Old Town's marketing manager, is carrying on of Sawicki's original experiments: Farm to Table. When creating Farm to Table, Sawicki wanted the program to teach children how to cook the foods properly and what fruits and vegetables are in season when.

"Children from the age of 5 to 15 learn how to cook locally grown produce. They can even take produce ingredients home," Togias said.

Togias thinks that getting kids to like the type of produce sold at the market can give them a better nutritional base. "It's an important educational opportunity for kids to learn," she said.

Sawicki hopes Illinois' passage of the Cottage Food Bill, which would allow farmers to more easily sell their products at low cost for buyers, will help the market. The bill is awaiting the governor's signature. Assuming that it is signed, Illinois will join almost 30 states -- including Missouri -- that allow certain homemade foods (baked goods, jams and jellies) to be sold at farmers' stands or markets.

"It will allow individuals to process low-risk food at farmers markets, and for people to easily gain certification and satisfaction on product liability," Sawicki said.

Anyone selling food at Old Town Market previously has had to go through the process of the government making sure it is prepared in a sanitary kitchen. "Our German baker, for example, is already in the food industry and has her own business," Sawicki said.

Oma Gisi's Bakery, from Kinmundy, Ill., recently started selling its products with great success.

"In the short term, they've built up quite a customer base. I'm impressed with the quickness of the success of the German bakery," Togias said.

Besides buying German style pastries and breads, market-goers can also support local artisans in their community.

"We have Stone Forest Enterprises bird feeders. They make hand-produced wood bird houses and feeders," Togias said, noting that they can make custom feeders for people's specific needs.

One of the local artisans, Allan Hogg, shows up to do free weekly bicycle repairs, his main goal is to get kids interested in being healthy by playing outdoors.

"He comes in a big purple van and he's comes there to tune up bikes for free. He's also added children's books to his repertoire," Sawicki explains. Togias says that Hogg's work is part of his nonprofit venture, The Cycle of Giving. Cycle of Giving is presenting the Free Kids Bicycle Rodeo & Safety Certification on July 9.

The Old Town Market is also putting on a healthy cooking demonstration for adults. "It's taking place in September, and it's Adults vs. Kids. It's a time to teach adults how they can cook in a healthy way."

"I feel that it's a good way to give back to the community; it's a good place to work and play. I think the streetscape has done a lot for the area, and attracted a lot more residents.

Keeping the wealth in the community is an important mission for Old Town Market, they want people to realize the luxury and value of buying fresh produce from their own back yard.

"It's even more important to support local businesses and for people to start eating healthier," Togais said.

The nutritional value of the food sold at Old Town is better quality, because the farmers use less pesticide, according to Togias.

"I'm 62, I've been doing this all my life and most people are now wondering where their food is coming from," said Elliot of Nature's Way. Elliot thinks that people buying mass produced food has resulted in major health factors and illness.

The market has seen an increase and demand for more organic and fresh products, and they want to continue educating people on the importance of buying locally grown food.

"It's really important for people to know where there food is coming from; they need to value the face of their local farmer. When we look at urban compared to rural living, people think their needs are different, but their needs tend to be the same," Sawicki said.

The market is open from 7:30 a.m. to noon, on Saturdays at the corner of 1st and West Main Street.

Ray Carter, a senior at Purdue University, is a Beacon intern.

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