Market vegetables sprout from humble beginnings

Eight years ago the Market House had nothing but Beanie Babies.
“We didn’t even have a fridge in here,” said official Market Master Alice Sjolander. Sjolander and friend, the late Jennifer DeHart, who was an assistant professor of environmental science at Allegheny College for nine years, knew they could not let the oldest market structure in Pennsylvania succumb to a life of dust and unloved children’s toys.
Inside the 141-year-old Market House, Sjolander and DeHart saw potential, Sjolander said. United by a mutual love for the environment, the community and wholesome food, the two women undertook a project to revitalize the Market House, hoping someday the rest of the community would feel that love, too. To strengthen the Market both inside and out, Sjolander and DeHart worked with the Meadville Market Authority, a board appointed by Meadville City Council, to oversee management of the city-owned landmark.
Now, after eight years of restoration and growth, Sjolander and DeHart’s dream for the downtown landmark has been realized. Every Saturday local vendors gather outside the Market House to sell fresh produce. The indoor store is open seven days a week.
On Saturday mornings, the Market House is alive with crisp colors, warm, steamy baked goods and children helping their parents pick out veggies. Outside, cars occupy each spot in the lot. A row of vendors selling piles of locally grown acorn squash, kale, onions and peppers greets guests upon arrival. Baskets of speckled gourds, towers of squash and tall corn stalks bundled against the brick wall accentuate the brisk fall season.
With the Market House’s revival during the past eight years, local cheese farms have also begun to flourish.
Before the Market House was renovated, the majority of regional cheese production skipped northwestern Pennsylvania and picked back up in Ohio. Sjolander said that by giving farmers a location to sell their products, they have in turn had the ability to build up the market. Meadville is now privy to six different types of packaged, creamy and local cheeses.
Cheese farmers are not the only people who would be out of business without the Market House. Beth Etter, local vendor and mother of Emily Owen, an Allegheny student, said that without the Market House, she wouldn’t have the means to keep up with her organic farming, which she said can often be a tall order.
Etter said bugs, weather, disease and even the air impact her crop yield. She is thankful she has a slot every Saturday to sell her produce—particularly her kale and leafy green lettuce this fall.
“When young and old [people] show up at the market with a smile and say, ‘Thank you so much for growing these amazing vegetables,’ I simply feel something is right with all this,” Etter said.
Emily Owen, daughter of Etter and Junior at Allegheny College, said that she is thankful for the Market House and all that her mom does.
“It’s great having access to nutritious food on a college student’s budget.”
Sjolander and DeHart didn’t only bring locally-grown vegetables to the market. They have united vendors such as Etter at a central location, at which 40 different farms are now represented, said Sjolander. This is beneficial to both the vendors and the community members, such as Allegheny students, who visit the Market House.
In addition to bringing vendors to the Market House, Sjolander and DeHart have also developed the indoor store. Working under the premise that good food should be available to everyone at a reasonable price, Sjolander stocks the indoor store with the best spices, honey, dried fruits and grains. Going beyond the basics, Sjolander said that the ingredients to many ethnic dishes, such as the spices for a basic Indian meal, can be found inside at the Market House store as well.
Over the years, Sjolander said she has seen regular customers flourish both in health and in spirit as a result of the food they find at the Market House. Sjolander said that this is her mission- to help people be healthy and to fill the Market House with people who care about people in general.
Sjolander said that the positive exchanges and interactions happening at the Market House daily have turned it into a community hub.
Sjolander said that some days she stops and looks around at all that has been accomplished.
“I really feel like this building is smiling,” Sjolander said.