While the sustainability and slow food movements thrive in Madison, local churches and vendors are offering additional food for thought.
Through mid-March, eight churches are hosting Markets and Meals for Hope, a winter series that promotes indoor farmers' markets and low-cost community meals in the Madison area.
"The goal is to get people back around the table and realizing where their food is coming from, and to help vendors through the winter months," said coordinator Jamie Stoiber.
Organized by the Churches Center for Land and People, a nonprofit that connects rural life with ministries of faith communities in Midwestern states, the events foster relationships between farmers and consumers while providing opportunities to buy and sell locally made foods through the winter.
At each market, 13 to 15 vendors participate (20 to 25 vendors from southern Wisconsin are involved throughout the season). Shoppers can peruse winter-grown foods as well as specialty items from local businesses. Apples from Ela Orchard, baked goods from the Gypsy Traveling Market and Soaps by Mom are a few of the offerings.
Meanwhile, organizers prepare a meal with farmers' featured items, including cheese and dairy products, root vegetables, natural meats, honey, bread, jams and jellies.
Shoppers are invited to partake in the meal while learning about the importance of local food, to slow down and share both community and conversation. Donations are suggested — $10 per individual, $5 for ages 6-12 and free for kids ages 5 and under, with a $25 cap for families.
"It's about the sacred act of eating and what it means to really enjoy your food," Stoiber said.
On Saturday, Jan. 28, the educational component to the meal features Tom Nelson, coordinator of the Rural Life Office of Catholic Charities of Madison, speaking on spiritual aspects of food. Stoiber said the meals may also include clips from movies like "Fresh" or "Food, Inc." to convey the significance of buying and consuming local food.
"It's a discussion to wake people up to what's really going on with the food system," Stoiber said.
Although the events are popular among parishioners of participating churches, with approximately 80 attendees for meals and 150 for the markets events are open to all.
In addition to providing food and education, the events also have the potential to benefit local farmers. Vendors participate for free, but are asked to donate 10 percent of their earnings (if profits reach more than $150) to benefit the Harvest of Hope Fund, a statewide initiative that offers financial aid to farmers in distress. Stoiber said last year's efforts were the biggest fundraiser for the fund in 2011.
Four installments of Markets and Meals for Hope remain, with two in Madison at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Parish on Saturday, Jan. 28, and First Unitarian Society on Saturday, Feb. 4, one in Fitchburg at Memorial United Church of Christ on Sunday, March 11, and one in Milwaukee at St. Sebastian Catholic Parish on Sunday, March 4.
Although times vary by venue, the market is typically held 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. with a meal held while the market is open. Saturday's meal at Our Lady Queen of Peace will be held from 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
Stoiber said she hopes the events can encourage relationships between urban and rural communities, supporting farmers in meeting their customers and allowing customers to learn about the process of locally made food and to eat it, too.
"People are happy to be there meeting the farmers, they're happy to get this really great meal in the middle of winter," Stoiber said. "It's a win-win for everyone."