CINCINNATI -- Back in the 1980s, the Campbell Soup Co. promised consumers its Prego brand spaghetti sauce packed lots of flavor in every jar with its now famous catchphrase, “It’s in there.” A popular farmers market on Cincinnati’s West Side takes an opposite approach.
Instead of advertising what’s in its vendors’ food, the Lettuce Eat Well Farmers Market lures customers by promising what’s not in there.
“We go to great lengths to provide nutrient-dense foods. All of our produce is grown without the use of synthetic chemicals, and no GMO,” said market manager Mary Hutten. “Our beef rancher even raises heritage breed cattle, which are 100 percent grass-fed.”
If the growth of the market is any indication, that strategy is working.
Having outgrown its previous location at Cheviot United Methodist Church, the year-round market is kicking off its busy spring season this year with new vendors and a new, more spacious location. The farmers market’s dozen local vendors started selling their organic products and homemade goods at Cheviot School last week.
“It’s a great fit for us. The school is about nine-tenths of a mile from our previous location,” said Hutten. “They have really rolled out the red carpet for us, and it will be a great collaboration.”
The school has been welcoming for good reason, according to YMCA school resource coordinator Onyango Collier. Its central location and promotion of fresh and healthier food options make the market a great asset to the Cheviot community, he said.
But the biggest reason?
“The children will benefit from being educated around the agricultural process, from the farm to the kitchen table,” Collier said.
That farm-to-table concept – and focus on education – has been at the heart of the market since its humble beginnings in 2010.
After attending a conference on ecology and spirituality, Hutten, of Monfort Heights, set out to raise awareness in Greater Cincinnati about the way our food is grown and produced. She also wanted to educate others on the benefits eating local provides not just for our health, but also for communities.
“In a word, it’s about relocalization,” she said. “A big part of that is food.”
Hutten and a small group started out showing films on the topic, and the idea for the farmers market stemmed from their discussions.
“We decided we were not a ‘talking group,’ we were a ‘doing group,’” Hutten said. “People really wanted a farmers market, and I felt like that was something that would really benefit the community.”
Like most farmers markets in the Tri-State, it started as a summer initiative, eventually evolving into a year-round market.
“We wanted people to eat well year-round,” she said. “The first five years were pretty rough at times … But over the past two years, we’ve had more and more customers seek us out. People are getting more savvy about the food they eat, and they’re looking for more nutrient-rich food.”
Hutten is a self-described “hands-on” manager. Lettuce Eat Well market vendors join the group by invitation only, and the process is highly selective, she said.
“I ask a lot of questions. I visit the farms,” she said. “If you’re buying food from our market, you can trust that everything is produced here locally and grown with no synthetic chemicals.”
In addition to the strict rules for produce and grass-fed cattle, the pork and chickens sold at the market are pastured and not fed genetically modified organisms.
Hutten’s motto: “You are what you eat.”
“It’s a lot of work, and people often ask me why I care so much,” she said. “So I ask them: Do you know what your beans or beef ate?”
Hutten’s passion for local food and management of the collaborative specialty market has cultivated a “family-like market atmosphere with wonderful vendors who make eating fresh and local affordable, convenient and desirable,” said Sarah Prud’homme, who has been shopping at the market since it opened.
Much like it is for many of its customers, the local market is a primary source of produce, meat, eggs and homemade soaps for Prud’homme and her family.
Hutten said customers like Prud’homme are the norm for the market.
“Our customers are very loyal,” she said. “Most are committed to eating well throughout the year. Our vendors know their names, and they have established relationships.”
That special connection is one of the things that keep both vendors and customers happy, Hutten said.
The Lettuce Eat Well Farmers Market is collaborative, meaning vendors work together rather than compete for customers’ business. Hutten keeps the number of vendors to a minimum, and there’s little overlap in what they offer.
It’s also a specialty market with items that would be hard to find elsewhere, including homemade bone broth and fermented veggies.
Another benefit for both customers and vendors is the market’s preorder program. Customers can preorder items directly from vendors to ensure they get exactly what they want on market days.
“Regular customers don’t have to worry about getting here early to get what they need, and our vendors know how much they need to bring to the market,” Hutten said.
Those features make the market a success, but Hutten knows it has to evolve to keep up with the needs of its customers.
New this year is an eight-week cooking series, beginning next month, presented by Margarita Lewis of The Ohio State University Extension.
“It has been my passion from the start, and it’s exciting to see how the market has evolved over the years,” said Hutten. “The bottom line is do you want the food for you and your family to come from a farmer’s field or a chemist’s laboratory?
“I want local families to know exactly where their food comes from. We give them that option.”
Upcoming Market days are April 21, from 3:30–6:30 p.m.; and beginning May 5, every Friday from 3–7 p.m.