Despite reducing its 2020 schedule due to the coronavirus pandemic, Monday’s Market still managed to squash previous attendance records in its just-concluded third year.
Melanie Wells, Community Wellness Coordinator at WellSpan Good Samaritan Hospital, said she believes social isolation attributed to the virus helped increase the number of visitors this year to the weekly market, which operated from the first Monday in July through Aug. 17.
“I always say that with any of my wellness programs that it usually takes about three years to say is this going to work or is this not going to work,” Wells said. “Fortunately, even despite COVID, this was our best year yet for Monday’s Market.”
Attendance increased despite a reduced schedule — it normally runs early June until school starts — and no community engagement programming, which in past years had featured healthy cooking demonstrations and physical fitness classes.
“I do think the branding that we put out there as far as having the Facebook page, having social media was super important because we were able to cross-promote,” Well said. “This allowed me to tag any business owner, anyone who was participating who had a Facebook page, so there was a lot of cross pollinating, so to speak, with that. The other thing, too, is that people wanted to get out and be social at some level.”
Wells added that attendance doubled from about 75 to 100 people on average per week last year to between 150 to 200 people in 2020. This year, she said, 100 people would be considered a “slow day.”
“We had plenty of space, plenty of room in this outdoor environment to space our [12 to 15] vendors and, of course, masks were required as well,” Wells noted. “I’d also say that momentum in the program has been naturally growing.”
The shocking figures concerning the overall poor health of Lebanon County residents indicates the necessity of Monday’s Market, whose goal is to improve the health of Lebanon County residents through education, providing access to resources and conducting community engagement programs.
“The thought process behind this whole project was WellSpan’s Community Health Needs Assessment for Lebanon County, which shows that seven out of 10 adults 18 and older are overweight or obese in Lebanon County,” Wells said. “And only 4 percent of the population is getting the recommended servings of vegetables per day. The food choices we make definitely play a role in health outcomes.”
The roots for Monday’s Market were planted in 2017 when a community garden was installed behind the Lebanon Valley Family YMCA as part of Phase One implementation through a partnership with the Y and WellSpan. The following year, the garden was expanded and Monday’s Market was officially launched, selling fresh fruits and vegetables at a reasonable cost.
“We sell things dirt cheap,” Wells said. Like a dollar for a big bag of cherry tomatoes or peppers. We accept donations for [the food], but it was a very nominal donation. Our goal is not to make money on this project. If anything, it is to offset costs. We do pay for a musician each week, so at the end of the day we are looking to cover that expense.”
A portion of the weekly harvest on Mondays is earmarked for the Y’s Arnold Early Learning Center, which helps to feed local youth, according to Wells. This year, Phase Two was launched and Penn State Extension was added as a partner to teach people to grow their own food and to lend their expertise to maximize the harvest. While the virus prevented hands-on learning opportunities, a master gardener still offered assistance in increasing production.
“This year we’ve actually gotten an abundance of produce, which we’re still getting, and, again, is going back to the chef at the Y to help with the Arnold Early Learning Center. When we have extra produce we are donating that to the women’s shelter on Willow Street as well,” Wells said. “As the community garden continues to grow, we had hoped to do additional beds for salsa or salads, but COVID, unfortunately, put a damper on education at the garden and at the market.”
If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to ensure he and she is leading a healthy lifestyle. Monday’s Market was initially created with a generous gift by Ed and Jeannie Arnold and ongoing partnerships help provide some necessary green for the unfunded program.
“The garden has no budget, but there’s still leftover money from our grant,” Wells said. “We were fortunate to have Bonduelle Foods as our season sponsor this year. We also had a sponsorship from Juniper Village, which sponsored our Senior Days.”
Sponsors are like the sun, providing the necessary energy to keep the program growing.
“If we can get sponsors that’s amazing because that helps either with buying seeds and any upgrades we need to do. We were also fortunate to have mulch donated by North Lebanon Township to help with the soil, which was breaking down after three or four years of use,” Wells added.
Despite the uncertainty heading into 2021 because of the pandemic, Wells said the program will be back next year. What form it takes, however, or when it will reopen, are all still to be determined. Wells said a survey has been sent to vendors to get their input and she plans to also gather information from the community.
“It can be so oppressive in the [summer] heat and even when we start in June, there’s not a ton of produce that’s ready at that time,” Wells said. “We want to survey vendors and the community so we can best serve the needs of the community. Maybe we’ll start in August and run through October. I don’t know; Is that good, bad, indifferent; I’m not really sure. But we are putting feelers out to gather information and feedback from those who participate.”
No matter what form Monday’s Market takes next year, the program’s mission will stay the same.
“It’s important to understand this program is here to provide education, to connect people to resources and support the community as a whole,” Wells said. “My biggest thing next year, I hope, is that all of this will look a little different and that we get back to the educational aspect as well as connect people to program resources.”
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