Task force to reexamine rules concerning farmers’ markets

Alexandra Wright, 12, always loved going to the Market at the Square, so she decided to become a vendor there.

At her stand, Coffee Today, College Tomorrow, she sells coffee blends, tea, lemonade, and a variety of baked goods.

“You must have stayed up all night,” a passerby said, surveying the array of brownies, cookies and pastries on the table.

“We did,” Wright and her mother, Susie, said.

Wright and her mother, both of Urbana, had gone into La Gourmandise, 119 W. Main St., Urbana, at midnight, baked through the night, and brought their goods directly to the market in the morning.

A rule prohibiting the sale of home-baked goods that just started being enforced this market season meant that Wright and other vendors had to find a commercial kitchen in which they could bake their goods if they wanted to continue to sell them at the market.

Now, the Illinois House has approved a resolution that would create a Task Force on Farmers’ Markets to reexamine these rules, sponsored by Rep. Bill Black (R-Danville) and co-sponsored by Reps. Naomi Jakobsson (D-Urbana) and Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet).

The resolution would establish a task force of 14 individuals appointed by legislative leaders, three county health department representatives, four community members involved with farmers’ markets, and the directors of the public health and agriculture departments.

The task force is to be formed by the end of this year to examine the rules for next year’s market season, stated the resolution.

Jim Roberts, director of environmental health at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, said the issue has not been visited in ten years, but the Illinois Department of Public Health has stipulated since 1999 that potentially hazardous home-baked goods are prohibited at farmers’ markets.

However, the rule was not enforced at Market at the Square until this year, which is one reason for the confusion the implementation of this rule has brought about, Roberts said.

“We received disagreements from many market vendors,” Roberts said. “But other bakers and members of the community supported this change.”

Roberts said he announced the change to be consistent with other nearby counties, and to be in compliance with the Illinois Department of Public Health law.

Market at the Square director, Lisa Bralts, said the announcement’s timing, right before the beginning of the market season this April, along with the fact that this rule had not been enforced for ten years, made it difficult for some vendors to deal with.

“To the best of a lot of people’s knowledge, they were doing what they were supposed to be doing,” Bralts said.

Dan Erwin of Champaign, who has been selling his english muffins at his stand, The Upper Crust, for almost 20 years, had to start baking in the commercial kitchens at The Great Impasta, 156 Lincoln Sq. instead of in his own home.

Erwin said his stand at the market is his only source of income during the summer, so he had no choice but to accept the newly enforced rule.

“It’s kind of awkward, but without that, what would I do?” Erwin said. “Nothing.”

Stewart Pequignot of Mahomet also had to find a commercial kitchen to bake in to continue to operate his stand, Stewart’s Artisan Breads. He now works out of the kitchens at Prairie Fruit Farms, 4410 N. Lincoln Ave.

“It made life pretty inconvenient,” Pequignot said.

He said that because of the long rising times of the bread, at home, he could do other things in the meantime.

Now that he has to cook out of the commercial kitchen, he has to stay there the whole time.

“It’s become a full-time job, whereas before it was just a part-time job,” Pequignot said.

In addition to the inconvenience, another reason the vendors welcome a task force to reexamine these rules is the fact that they believe the goods they bake are non-hazardous.

“There was never a problem, you know?” Susie Wright said.

Roberts acknowledges he did not decide to enforce the rule as a result of any problem arising from home-baked goods at the market, but in an effort to be consistent with the state rules.

Bralts said she can understand the rule as it applies to custards and other goods that need to be refrigerated and stored at proper temperatures, but the goods in question are goods such as cookies, brownies and bread.

She said it is not necessarily a bad rule, but there needs to be some compromise for these non-hazardous home-baked goods, or vendors will be afraid to sell at the market.

“People come to the farmers’ market to find things they can’t find anywhere else, and I’d like to keep it that way,” Bralts said.

She said her hope is that the task force will realize this, and will reverse the rule or find a compromise that allows the sale of home-baked goods at the Market at the Square.

But until then, baked goods vendors like Alexandra Wright will have to continue working out of commercial kitchens at inconvenient times and locations.

“I just miss having the comfort of my own kitchen,” Wright said.