SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – The town’s favorite market is back for the season a month early. Last Wednesday marked the first Farmers Market of summer. But this year, visitors can expect more than the garden-variety of fruits and vegetables.

A mere six tents in Lot #9 at the intersection of Sloan Street and 1st Street offered the usual Jersey Fresh tomatoes, as well as fresh asparagus, beets, radishes and assorted leafy greens. Stony Hill Gardens & Farm’s owner Carol Davis said she was thrilled to come to the farmers market early. “The cooler weather has put us behind, but at least we have strawberries,” Davis said. “Everybody always asks for them.”

Other local food and drinks, however, were less conventional, including vegetable juice, freshly squeezed lemonade, pickles and olives and even homemade lobster rolls. “We might as well get something to eat while we’re here,” a town local said to the owner of Lyndhurst’s Pickles Olives Etc., ordering a half sour for her children. “And my son loves pickles.” Loyal customers can also expect Maplewood’s Lickt Gelato later in the season.

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A large group surrounded Kitchen a la Mode owner Ben Salmon for his juicing demonstration. Salmon made juice with an appliance from his kitchen supplies store with beets, kale and apples from Stony Hill Gardens & Farm. “The synergy between the farmers’ market and Kitchen a la Mode is natural,” he said. “Healthy eating […] and juicing [are both] so good for you.”

Salmon’s demonstration contributed to the foot traffic at the busiest tent, belonging to the South Orange Village Center Alliance (SOVCA), the coordinators of the farmers market along with other community events and festivals year-round. The table also featured a South Orange Performing Arts Center ticket raffle.

These atypical additions to the annual farmers market were the vision of SOVCA Executive Director Lisa Hackett. “I want the farmers market to be a meeting place for everyone,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to gather and socialize, see your friends and neighbors.” She said she is trying to make presentations from local shop owners, such as Salmon’s, a regular feature of the market to further engage the community.

Hackett has also planned several monthly events to draw the community together. Peach Fest is in July, and the market’s first annual Watermelon Carving Contest is in August. “So bring your knife skills,” she said, beaming. “I know we have a lot of artistic talent in this town.”

To Hackett, the market is not just about community sensibility, but is also about civic responsibility. “People come and expect to see strawberries all summer,” she said. “What they don’t realize is that a farmers market is about promoting seasonal eating. We want to teach people to eat locally grown food.” She even turns away farms that aren’t from New Jersey as part of the Jersey Fresh initiative.

As a vegetarian, Hackett says she knows more than anyone the importance of eating fruits and vegetables. That’s why she applied for a grant for USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) card readers, so lower income residents will also be able to shop at the market, too.

Hackett believes the importance of eating healthy starts with children. “Using local, healthy ingredients should be instilled in these children at a young age,” she said. “Going to the farmers market shouldn’t be a chore. They should enjoy doing it.”

That’s why she is hosting a story time at the SOVCA tent after school. Books promoting local and healthy eating – such as Wednesday’s sampling, Farmers’ Market Day by Shanda Tent – allow children to have fun while they’re learning. “Children are fascinated with fruits and vegetables,” Hackett said. “Their willingness to try and experiment makes them excited to come to the market.” She is currently looking for nursery or elementary school teachers to read stories, which she will provide.

Above all else, the market’s time and location make it easiest to reach everyone. The 2 PM – 7 PM time slot caters to residents and commuters alike. Additionally, Hackett said that because the market is directly in the center of the village, it is easy to work a trip into mid-week grocery shopping routines.

The South Orange Farmers Market is open every Wednesday all summer from 2 PM – 7 PM in Lot #9 at the intersection of Sloan Street and 1st Street. For more information, visit SOVCA on Facebook, their website, sovillage.org, or call their office at (973) 763-6899.