Lonnie Hawks carefully guides materials for another bag through her sewing machine
Mary Ann Kasper and Jennifer Wang wait for customers
at the Haymaker Market.
An Ohio Direction Card gets swiped and a client’s hand-made bag waits for special tokens that mean
more Produce Perks, fresh food for less!
“One year, we went through the non-profit national money by June and didn’t get more until March,“ Kasper said.
Not everyone can sew, but SRS can use cash donations, as well. It uses some of the funds it raises from selling SRS branded t-shirts to sharpen scissors, tend to the sewing machines that always need something, purchase custom labels for the handmade items, and for more fabric.
This Winter finds the group producing custom upholstered folding chairs. Gould brought back yards of brightly colored fabric from Africa that will offer interesting designs for the chairs.
But the giving doesn’t stop there in this greater market community. SRS has members who also belong to the Portage County Master Gardeners. That group will again offer herb and vegetable plants for summer gardens, along with advice throughout the summer. And members will plant extra in their gardens for the Center of Hope and Kent Social Services.
Kent State University Campus Kitchen who provide food to area shelters, now collects produce and bread products from vendors at the end of each Haymaker Market and re-distributes the leftovers to area shelters.
The SRS of Kent, Ohio, was given the 2016 Green Enterprise Award by the Portage Park District Foundation, Portage County Environment Conservation Award Benefit.
Members (in no particular order): Carolyn Schlemmer, Laureen Caner and Stella, Aida and Roscoe, Carol Gould, Jennifer Wang, Mary Ann Kasper, Laura Davis, Lonnie Hawks, Jennifer Gregg, Guenveur Burnell, Jane Smith, Jean Colosetti, Lynne Jeon, Mary Lou Holly, Wendy Packer, Sandy Eaglen, Jane Preston Rose, Margaret Swauger, Sherry Rose, Mara DeMattia, Ree in Stitches, Claudia Miller, Brad Bolton, Suzanne Frank, Sunny Delaluz, Helen Burdette, Erin LaBelle, Barb Hipsman Springer, Heather Waltz, Mary Anne Ritchie, Margie Ritchie, Rachel Wagner and Hannah Flannery
Barb Hipsman Springer
The red apple glistens from the cart in Kent’s Haymaker Farmers’ Market. A few stepsaway, another table is piled high with spinach, sprouts, leeks, and dozens of other vegetables, just calling out to be combined into a nutritious meal. But it may as well
be miles away for some who are having a hard time making ends meet, let alone get
fresh foods on the table.
Needing even more space while Carol travels, December found the SRS moving to Ree in Stitches, a home on Water Street that is owned by Ree, who sews for various commercial firms. Her second floor was open and she and Mary Ann Kasper, who has been called the SRS manager, teacher and inspirer, moved all the machines and extra fabric into the space. So why “Socially Responsible” in the name? Kasper said it aptly fits part of the group’s work—buying or taking “socially irresponsible” t-shirts out of the market at thrift stores. Actually, her husband, Gary came up with it. `While she was thrifting other things, he found
t-shirts that projected hateful or misogynist ideas. The SRS uses those to create “tarn”— torn material that makes wonderful pull strings for the yoga bags. or they are shredded and used to fill meditation pillows. Most of those products are bought at One Love Yoga in downtown Kent.
But members, now numbering in the dozens, say the group represents more than friends raising money.
“This is kindness,” said Wang. “In our current divisive situation, we have the feeling of community around the common theme of
meeting others’ basic needs for good food. We could do this fun thing, sewing, assembling, selling—and help others—
while enjoying each others’ company, too.
Agreeing, Kasper added, “We accept people for who they are and frankly, that kindness comes back to us tenfold.“
Recently, the group is focusing on defining its mission and establishing a website. It is a 501c3 under a group called Shared Vision with a Pay- Pal account. The farmers’ market has received support for the $10 match from a USDA FINI grant, the Wholesome Wave national nonprofit, and the OSU Extension Office. But the funding has a seasonal cap and the SRS fundraising helps extend the benefit to reach the community year-round.
Haymaker Farmers’ Market already offers a table through the Kent State University Campus Kitchen program that shows how to make meals from foods offered by the vendors, including recipes and taste tests.
But Kasper and Wang wanted to do more.
Over a few months in the summer of 2013, Kasper—and now a growing group—birthed the SRS of Kent, designed to recycle unwanted fabric into items that could be sold locally, either to individuals or to area shops.
And with the Sweatshop came Produce Perks, which went from monthly to weekly.
“In 2016, the group raised more than $3,000 to offer the weekly Produce Perks match to community members struggling
with food insecurity,” said Andrew Rome, the manager of the Haymaker Market.
“Looking around, we came to the idea that Kent was becoming a magnet for yoga studios,” Kasper said.
“So then, we looked at our first product, a very sturdy
yoga bag, usually made out of upholstery fabric,” said Wang, who often is seen at Saturday market selling the Sweatshop wares. The yoga bags sold quickly at the market and at studios.
"We knew we had some ‘sewers’ around, people who were always looking for a little project and to enjoy some ‘sisterhood’,” Kasper said.
“What we didn’t know is just how many things we could come up with to raise cash for the Produce Perks.”
Eye pillows are made of linen cloth and filled with locally grown herbs, like Kasper’s homegrown lavender and flax. Those started getting attention. Then, there were special requests for a few dollars—a mending job here or there. Any donations from those go back into the SRS Produce Perks fund. Catnip toys made of felt also are popular sales.
Over the next summer, the group had gelled and were invited by Carol Gould to move their operations out of Mary Ann Kasper’s kitchen into Gould’s basement. There, they set up between 3—12 sewing machines, cutting tables, stuffing areas and jimmied hundreds of pounds of donated fabric into her garage and storage areas for future use. All machines are donated from friends of the Sweatshop and are fixed through Rich Porter in Garrettsville.
Gould, long retired, was a willing Sweatshop organizer, but members are all ages, including an 11-year old, and at all stages of work/life.
“How can you resist? This is fighting poverty with sisterhood and fun! We develop new products and some of us knit small items and there you have it—cash for Produce Perks,“ Gould said.
But with a little help from Kent “sewists,” anyone qualifying for food stamps through the Ohio Direction Card can get essentially, two apples for the price of one. Or spinach, sprouts, leeks, or any other healthy food at the Kent Haymaker Farmers’ Market.
Started by volunteers, the Socially Responsible Sweatshop (SRS) of Kent doubles the food credits those in need have to spend, up to $10 a week through “Produce Perks.”
And all that Direction Card holders need to do is ask—or be reminded— at the check-in table at the Market where they swipe their benefits card.
But what’s with the “sweatshop” moniker of this group?
The SRS of Kent started out as just one wellknown community activist trying to figure out how to help low-income area residents stretch their food budget.
Mary Ann Kasper was helping former market manager Kelly Ferry check in clients who wanted to use the state’s program to buy vegetables and fruits at the market.
“But what I couldn’t get my head around was that these people really, really could use more than the $7 the state gives them per month,” Kasper said. Women, infants and children participants get only $7 a month to use for fruits and vegetables. That has to be taken in light of the fact that in Kent City Schools, nearly half the students qualify for free or reduced meals, a barometer of poverty nationally.
Kasper listened as people approached the market table and figured out that it was hard, not just financially, but emotionally for individuals or families to come to the desk to use their card.
“We want everyone to feel just great about buying good food and wanted to help them get more,” Kasper said.
At the start, it was just a little hand-sewn bag Kasper or her first volunteer, Jennifer Wang, handed to the family or person to keep their wooden “tokens” in, week-to-week.
“Just that little offering and a smile had the clients coming back, knowing they were welcomed,” Kasper said. “We knew right from the start, this is something we can do week-to-week to help fight poverty right here in Kent and in the area.”