Madisonians visiting Chicago should feel right at home on Wednesday and Saturday mornings in the south end of the Windy City's Lincoln Park.
That's because on those days, some 60 vendors who are part of the Green City Market set up their booths to sell a variety of produce, meats, flowers, honey and other products - just like a Saturday morning at the Capitol Square.
Although it's not as big as Madison's market, the Green City Market doesn't disappoint. Now celebrating its 12th season, the market on Wednesdays caters mainly to Chicago chefs and shop owners. Children also come to the market mid-week to learn about healthy food and gardening and to take part in other programs. Come Saturday, the clientele runs more to local shoppers.
The brainchild of the late Chicago Tribune food writer and cookbook author Abby Mandel, the Green City Market started with a handful of vendors in an alley near the Chicago Theater off of State Street. It quickly outgrew its space and has been in Lincoln Park ever since.
"Abby came back from a trip to Europe, where she'd fallen in love with the idea of sustainable markets and wanted to bring that experience to Chicago," said Lyle Allen, the market's executive director. "We'd like to think it's been a great success and a leader in supporting small farmers.
"That's always been a key part of our mission, and by the year 2012, all of our farmers will be required to be certified by a third party as sustainable or organic."
The market has 60 vendors, all from Illinois or nearby states, including Wisconsin. The farthest any seller travels is about 300 miles.
Christian Gosselin, executive sous chef at Chicago's Sofitel luxury hotel, said he finds the best produce at the Green City Market on Wednesday mornings.
"It's nice to see - not only for us chefs but the general public - that there are still people who care and love the profession of farming," said Gosselin, who was raised on a farm near Montreal, Canada, and frequently visited farmers' markets growing up.
"In my cooking at the Sofitel, I use what's available from the season. For me, using strawberries in January doesn't make any sense," he said. "The customer needs to be informed and understand that there are seasons for all fruits and vegetables."
Buying local also is a big part of the equation for Gosselin, he said.
"It's important to ask for a high level of freshness, but it is also important that we keep a demand for local and seasonal products," he said.
Sara Gasbarra, who lives in Wrigleyville, about 10 minutes from the Green City Market, said she has been coming to the market for about five years. She also volunteers there, working on a children's organic garden and coordinating other programs.
"Not only are there wonderful fruits and produce, but chef demonstrations and kids programs," she said. "And I really like it because you know everything is local and sustainable. This market is more than just a place for buying great heirloom vegetables and fruits, it's a real community."
For Bronwyn Weaver, who runs the Heritage Prairie Farm near Elburn, Ill., with her husband Bob Archibald, bringing vegetables, honey and baked goods to the Green City Market is a labor of love.
"We leave the farm at 3:30 a.m. to trek into the city," she said. "At the end of the day, we hope to make some money while raising and selling food that people enjoy and is good for them. We have to be competitive with our prices, even though we put a lot of effort into what we grow."
Relative newcomers, Weaver and Archibald have been market vendors since 2008. They joined, Weaver said, because they were "attracted by the integrity of the market and the fact we would be brushing shoulders with other organic farmers who were some of the best of the best."
They sell carrots, eggplant, lettuce, heirloom tomatoes and honey that is especially prized by Chicago chefs. So much so that a dozen or more of them have signed up to have their own hives at her farm.
"We cater to chefs with some of the latest trends in what we grow in heirloom veggies, and also to regular consumers who want the most wonderful varieties and the best-tasting food," she said.