Ann Arbor has multiple high-profile outlets to buy local produce, from the Ann Arbor Farmers Market to Argus Farm Stop. But since 2011, the University of Michigan (U-M) has been quietly expanding its summer offering of several M Farmers Markets a week at numerous U-M sites.
The markets are a partnership between Michigan Dining, the MHealthy wellbeing program, Central Student Government, Planet Blue/Office of Campus Sustainability, and Michigan Medicine. Since nutrition is a key component in weight control and overall health, it made sense for U-M to start offering farmers market days around the U-M campus and at the university's various clinic locations around Ann Arbor, according to Erica Owen, manager of nutrition and weight management for MHealthy.
Owen says the U-M health system had been considering holding farmers markets at U-M locations since 2007, but it wasn't resonating with employees. But the idea started to catch on when U-M students expressed interest in having farmers markets on campus.
Owen says early efforts involved having food service company Aramark and MDining buy produce from local farms and then resell it at university sites, due to U-M policies on who can sell products on the university's turf. But once Square's mobile credit card processing technology caught on with local farmers, it made it easier for them to set up tables and take credit card payments.
Owen says student markets in early fall typically attract three or four produce vendors, as well as food trucks and other prepared food vendors. The markets often also include cooking demos with simple recipes requiring no more than five or six ingredients, Owen says.
"It's often something like salsa that doesn't need to be cooked, or can be cooked really quickly, like a one-pan meal," she says. "They can see the recipe being made, take a recipe card with them, and then buy the produce to take with them and make the recipe at home."
M Farmers Markets at health system locations typically only feature one farmer each day, either Milan-based Zilke Vegetable Farm or Tecumseh-based Prochaska Farms. Markets at Wolverine Tower, the North Campus Research Center complex, the U-M Hospital, and the East Ann Arbor Health Center are the best attended, due in large part to the density of employees in those areas.
Markets at U-M's Briarwood location and some of the university's other smaller satellite locations haven't been as well-attended, Owen says, though a marketing push by interested faculty produced healthy attendance at a new market at the Stephen Ross Academic Center.
Owen says the MHealthy team tweaks its market offerings each year, adding markets or events where there's interest, and sometimes scaling back at locations where attendance has been poor.
"We are going to have to look at what happens next year," Owen says. "We may have saturated our market a bit, and there are also so many more markets in (employees') own communities, near their homes, than when we started. We are good at reevaluating and coming up with new, creative ideas."
Owen says she's considered creating a system allowing employees to order a box of variety produce in advance, to be picked up at a centralized location at the end of the work day. Another of those creative ideas is a collaboration in the making with Aramark, the university hospital's dining service, that would involve offering MHealthy-approved boxed lunches with an entree, a fruit salad, and a bottle of water.
A complete schedule of the M Farmers Markets is available through the University of Michigan's website.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of MHealthy.