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Waterville’s Downtown Winter Farmers Market has had a tough time finding a home since its launch three years ago.
The market was in The Center, a downtown building, its first year. But the space wasn’t right and parking was tough. Last year it moved to the Maine General Thayer Unit on North Street, on the edge of the city near the Colby College campus. That location wasn’t quite right, either.
Kelly LaCasse, co-owner with her husband, Mark, of The Maine Meal and a vendor at the market, said the market has always sought “a forever home” with sufficient parking, consistent foot traffic, easy access for vendors and customers, visibility and a strong partnership for promotions and programs.
When the winter market starts Thursday, it will be in a new home a quarter mile closer to downtown on North Street — the Alfond Youth Center.
It’s hard to find a location that meets all the market’s needs, but the youth center does “and more,” said LaCasse, who’s also community food equity coordinator for MaineGeneral, facilitating the Healthy Waterville Food Council, an initiative of Healthy Northern Kennebec.
“With Alfond Youth Center as a new partner, I feel like our farmers’ market is positioned to have a significant impact on the health and well being of this community,” she said by email this week.
The market’s opening coincides with the youth center opening its new geodesic dome greenhouse, part of the plan to have the kids grow vegetables year-round.
The older kids — those in the 9 to 12-year-old range — will also operate a booth at the farmers’ market. With mentoring from other vendors, they will run the booth themselves.
“They’ll do it all, from soup to nuts,” said Crista Lavenson, marketing and communications manager at the youth center.
The youth center, which also includes the Boys & Girls Club and YMCA, has had an outdoor garden for five years. The center also feeds more than 200 children from its Kids Kitchen, many of whom are on free or reduced lunch at school and depend on the meal as their last hot, substantial one of the day, Lavenson said. The center also sends backpack meals home for weekends to about 75 families.
The center had wanted to have a greenhouse for some time as a way to extend the growing season and involve all the center’s kids in gardening. A good fit hadn’t yet been found when someone mentioned how well the geodesic dome he had at home worked.
“We thought, ‘Wow, this could really be cool,’” Lavenson said.
The solar-powered Growing Center bio dome was paid for largely by proceeds generated by the annual chef gala and celebrity golf tournament run by former club kid John Beaupre and his siblings in memory of their mother, Mary Nash Beaupre, as well as grants from Hannaford supermarkets, Lowe’s Renovation Across the Nation program and other donors.
The 42-foot diameter dome arrived in September. It has a large open water tank below the shell’s solar panels, which not only feeds the pipes that heat the dome and provide water for hydroponic and aquaponic growing, but also will be home to fish and water-based plants. Vents at the top open automatically when the interior gets too warm. The dome has more than 100 feet of bed space, with plenty of room left over for work tables and equipment.
“The kids love it out here,” Lavenson said.
The greenhouse will not only provide hands-on gardening experience, but the dome’s workings, as well as the gardening, provide science, technology, engineering and math lessons. Gardening is also therapeutic for children with learning and behavior challenges
“It’s not all just about getting in the dirt,” she said. “They’re learning about plants, the ecosystem,” as well as the part what they produce plays in their own nutrition.
“They learn, ‘I can do this,’” Lavenson said, adding that the belief that children won’t eat healthy food is turned on its head when they have a hand in producing and preparing it.
She said about half of the children who participate in the outdoor gardening program have also started growing vegetables at home. The center plans to get parents involved once the teaching kitchen is up and running.
The Alfond Youth Center also has wanted to have a kid-operated stall at the farmers market. Now that the market is in the center, “it’s going to be great,” Lavenson said, noting that the center has a built-in customer base, with foot traffic from youth programs and tournaments, as well as the after-school program.
Lavenson said the youth stall probably won’t open for a few weeks as the kids learn the ropes.
The farmers’ market itself — an offshoot of the city’s warm-weather farmers’ market — is buoyed by community support.
“We have a few key community partnerships that are working hard to make sure that the Downtown Waterville Farmers Market is a valued part of the community,” LaCasse said.
Partners include, among others, MaineGeneral, which provides an annual sponsorship that helps sustain the operating budget, and Healthy Northern Kennebec and the Healthy Waterville Action Team, which she said are working to break down barriers in food access by providing support for cooking demos and tastings at the market.
The market also participates in the Maine Harvest Bucks, which assists and incentivizes buying locally, and produces fruits and vegetables for people on a limited budget.
“From a community health perspective [the partnership] is a win-win in increasing access to healthy food for all community members,” LaCasse said. “Just like the AYC offers programs for all income levels, so does our market.”
The youth center, too, has the big picture in mind, Lavenson said.
“We’re really shifting into a wellness module. We want to be involved in whole-family wellness. This is baby steps, but we want family steps.”