The International Farmers Market at Lafayette Park does more than just sell the wares of local farmers. It gives refugees the tools to succeed in their new country and it gives low-income families access to fresh, healthy foods.
“They’re like an explosion in your mouth,” said an International Institute of New Hampshire volunteer, offering a cherry tomato to a shopper at the market on a recent Wednesday. The tomatoes were just one of many crops grown by participants in the Institute’s Rooting New Americans beginning farmer program and sold twice weekly at the market. The Rooting New Americans program at the Institute began four years ago and launched the market last year.
“[The program] is seen as a way to provide refugees in Manchester with no skills to join the ‘traditional’ workforce [ways] to use the skills they do have,” said Jeremiah Vernon, program coordinator. “A lot of [refugees] have an agricultural background.”
“The goal is for them to be financially independent farmers,” Vernon said. Most agricultural program participants grow their crops on land at the Youth Development Center in Manchester and on land in Derry. Almost all of the international crops grown by participants are able to thrive in the New England climate, Vernon said, adding that crops for “native palates” will also be grown for next year’s market.
“We will have more of a variety of foods to offer,” he said.
While most of the vendors at market are in the Institute’s agricultural program, International Farmers Market Coordinator Gabriella McNevin noted that the event is open to all interested vendors. “We are looking to develop more,” she said.
On a recent Tuesday, the market saw $600 in sales, McNevin said. All of the money goes directly to the farmers. At the end of each market, farmers are left with tokens given to them by food stamp users, which they redeem for cash when the market closes for the day. Each dollar spent by food stamp users is doubled through the Wholesome Wave Foundation, allowing for them to spend more on fresh, healthy items. The market also accepts other federal nutrition service benefits.
“[The Wholesome Wave Foundation] is a national program aimed at improving accessibility of fresh, healthy foods for low- income families,” McNevin said. “[The Foundation] teaming up with small markets like this, I think that is the key to accessibility … it’s money [low-income families] wouldn’t have access to.”
In addition to money earned from selling his crops, a stipend is also paid to the program’s market coordinator, Karga Thapa, of Bhutan.
“He’s almost at the point where he doesn’t need the stipend to survive anymore,” Vernon said.
Thapa, who learned his farming skills from his parents in his native country, moved to New Hampshire nearly three years ago and has been involved with the Institute for two.
“It’s good, it helps,” he said of the agricultural program. “I’ve learned many things.”
Thapa said he spends five to six hours a day, five days a week, tending to his crops.
“Most [participants] don’t need to be told how to plant something, grow something or tend something, but we teach them how to access supplies and cater to [the American] culture,” Vernon said, adding that pest management, crop rotation and the financial part of farming are also taught at the Institute.
He then held up a small green melon grown by Thapa.
“This would be a watermelon but the Bhutanese love under-ripe watermelons, so these are white inside and their flavor is really mild,” Vernon said. “We will educate [participants] that watermelons have to grow until they mature.”
Also on Thapa’s table were bunches of mizuna greens, a spicy variety of mustard greens that Vernon noted is a huge favorite among the Bhutanese, tomatoes and garlic. Another program participant sells green beans, eggplants, zucchinis and pink-spotted cranberry beans that are eaten shelled in Africa but with the skin on in Bhutan. “It tastes like a bean … more like a pinto bean than a green bean,” Vernon said. McNevin keeps a folder of recipes that use produce sold at the market, including a recipe for zucchini bread.
“[The recipe] calls for around three zucchini, but if you’re buying them from Margarita you only need one,” McNevin said of the large zucchini peeking out of a wooden box set up on the smiling program participant’s table.