COMMUNITY SPIRIT: Farmers Market provides fresh food for 16 years

Patrons engage with various vendors at a past Tahlequah Farmers' Market.

The Tahlequah Farmers' Market has provided a space for farmers and vendors to reach local residents for 16 years.

Marla Saeger, TFM's president, said the market is a coalition of five volunteer board members and the market’s vendors and patrons.

TFM has created several programs and ways for residents to obtain fresh food, including the mobile farmers' market and the farm-to-school program.

The mobile market has recently completed its six-week pilot program, where those affiliated with TFM take vendors' products onto a trailer and sell them to the public. She said the mobile market is meant to target and help those without transportation, as well as older adults.

“We’ve always wanted to have a delivery service system somehow, someway because there are many people who don’t have transportation and can’t come to see our market, so we’ve always wanted to be able to take the market to them,” said Saeger.

Saeger said when it comes to TFM in general, they try to reach anyone who wants fresh food. The market is able to help include more people by offering and participating in programs, such as SNAP, Double-Up Oklahoma, and the senior farmers' market food nutrition program.

She said she believes the COVID-19 pandemic has helped to show others why fresh food is vital to the area.

“When you have supply chains that break down and your big box markets, you depend on your gardens and you depend on your neighbors and you depend on each other, and it intensified the need for that during the COVID-19 [pandemic],” said Saeger.

To help start the conversations about fresh, healthy foods with the younger generation, TFM also helps host a farm-to-school program, which has been ongoing for nine years. Saeger said the program allows TFM to take a mini market to different elementary schools for third-grade students to learn and buy different vegetables using fake money called “Veggie Bucks.”

“It’s quite rewarding, especially when you see them come back into the big market, and they’ve got their parent or grandparent in tow. They’ve got their bag that they got at the farm-to-school, and they come to me and they have this look in their eyes, ‘Don’t you remember me?’” said Saeger.

Saeger said TFM became the No.1 farmers' market in Oklahoma in the American Farmland Trust’s annual voting contest. The point of the contest is to determine who enjoys their farmers' market the most. TFM was also awarded the contest’s No. 7 position in the southwest region of the United States and was picked to be No. 75 in the U.S. out of 8,000 markets.

She said the market was created 16 years ago by a group of like-minded individuals who loved food and found it as a way to help local farmers.

TFM is now in its off-season, as it runs the first of April through the end of October. Saeger said the break between seasons allows for everyone to re-evaluate and see what next year's market will look like.

“We’re all tired because we bust it for the nine months we’re open,” said Saeger. “So our farmers take time to figure out if they’re going to do something new with their products. As a board, we take time a look at what different programs we want to have.”

Saeger said to get the younger generation involved with gardening, TFM is looking to start a youth booth during next year's season. She said the booth will allow kids to sell their own produce at the market and help them learn basic skills in entrepreneurship, how to deal with the public, producing a quality product, and more.

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