Most college kids hope to earn some cash over the summer. Two East Lyme coeds, home for the summer and passionate about what we put in our bodies as well as the health of our environment, decided they should figure out how to start a farmers market.
What started as a cause in June has become a reality, with plans for more to come. The Niantic Farmers Market, launched just two weeks ago during Niantic Main Street's annual Bargains by the Bay tent and sidewalk sale, is going strong. The Thursday afternoon market, on Methodist Street between Main and Hope, has drawn 13 to 15 vendors each week, offering a variety of locally grown fresh fruits, vegetables, seafood, meats and plenty of hand-made artisan treats, from chocolates and cupcakes to breads and salads to go.
There's a larger environmental and human health mission to the market, initiated by Rachel Hutchins, an art history major at Skidmore College and a graduate of East Lyme High. She was inspired after reading Michael Pollan's two books, "In Defense of Food" and "Food Rules."
"I was taken by how much of the food we get from grocery stores is so processed and refined, not whole or real, and I wanted to get back to that," Hutchins says.
When Hutchins took her case to East Lyme Town Hall, she found encouragement and support and was put in touch with Candy Shapiro, Niantic Main Street member and avid cheerleader for a revitalized, people-friendly village.
"A farmers market has been on the back burner for Niantic Main Street for some time," said Shapiro. "We needed volunteers who could step up the plate and take charge of it. We were very excited to hear from Rachel."
Hutchins called on her friend, Sara Schwartz, a junior at American University, majoring in environmental studies with a minor in international relations. The two found time, between each doing an internship and a part-time second job, to write up a business plan, scope out other markets, find vendors and launch this one.
"The town has been very supportive. They really wanted to see this happen," says Hutchins.
The food truly is local, most of it coming from southeastern Connecticut or the Sound. The farthest vendors are from South Glastonbury and New Haven. It also carries many locally made foods, including pies by Mary Foster of Old Orchard Farm and pork, beef and honey from Cranberry Meadow Farm, both in East Lyme.
"We're reducing the carbon footprint by bringing in food that has been grown locally, not 2,000 miles away," says Schwartz, who wrote an environmental impact section for the market plan.
"This is a nice little market, lots of people" said vendor Danni Best, of River Chocolates, who heard good things about the start-up at Chester and Higganum markets, where she also sells. Best's home-made hand-dipped creations include LL Cool bon bons, made with crushed Oreo cookies and orange juice; a dark chocolate bacon bark; pecan turtles and dipped pretzels.
"I think Niantic really needed something like this," says Tabatha Miranda, co-owner of Café Sol, a new eatery at 346 Main that features fresh, organic and local foods. "It really adds something to the community."
Miranda and partner Brian Bellmore say they are finding a following at the market for their signature potato chip cookies and their weekly lemonade combinations, with flavors ranging from blueberry to basil.
"It's great visibility here," says Teri Smith, of Smith's Acres, which had several tables full of fresh fruits and vegetables last week. "Even though we have a full garden center and farm stand a few blocks away, I'm reaching new customers here. People tell me, 'I had no idea you guys had all of this produce.'"
Smith and Shapiro, who have both been through the business ups and downs of Niantic, sense a different feeling on the downtown street. They credit it to the revitalized streetscape, with improved pedestrian walkways, urban trees, uniform street lights and benches and a new town clock.
"There's a good energy and enthusiasm," Smith notes. "There are always people on the street now."
"The town is a beautiful walking town now," Shapiro adds. "The revitalization has taken on a life of its own, and it can't be stopped."
This year's market is scheduled to run through Oct. 6, according to Shapiro.
Hutchins and Schwartz already have expanded plans for next year, including cooking and tasting collaborations with area restaurants and live music. Another goal is to get more East Lyme middle school and high school students involved, as well as other community organizations.
"It will grow," says Schwartz.