Spring is an exciting time for food lovers. As the days get warmer and longer, and the world around us shifts from gray and bare to green and lush, we eagerly anticipate the opening day of our neighborhood farmers market or CSA (community supported agriculture). For at least half of the year, many of us do our food shopping at our indoor supermarket whose shelves are lined with more than 48,000 different foods and food products. Some of these foods are organic or local, many are conventionally grown and have traveled thousands of miles from farm to supermarket, and most come in packages with a lengthy list of hard-to-decipher ingredients.
The Joy of Farmers Markets
But the farmers market stands in stark contrast to the supermarket. Farmers markets transport us to an outdoor haven filled with an abundance of fresh, local, seasonal food, and an opportunity to connect with our food on a much more personal level. As we navigate the market, we discover which foods are native to our region and what foods we can produce easily in the climate we live. We also gain appreciation for, and enjoy food that is in season, despite the average supermarket telling us we can enjoy almost any fruit or vegetable year-round. And lastly, farmers markets offer a unique opportunity to meet and greet the hard-working farmers who are growing food for our families.
The demand for local food has never been greater, and the growth of farmers markets across the United States has been rapid over the last decade. In the mid-nineties, there were under 2000 farmers markets operating in the United States. Today, that number has more than tripled with over 6000 markets currently operating in addition to nearly 1000 winter markets, many of which can be found throughout cold regions of the nation. Not only do more people want to know the origins of what they eat, but they are realizing the positive impact of buying local food for our health, the planet, and the economy.
Local Foods are Superfoods
Asparagus and garlic scapes in the spring, freshly picked berries and tomatoes in the summer, and an abundance of greens grown from spring until fall are bursting with flavor and nutrition. A typical dinner travels 1700 miles from farm to plate, not only wasting valuable resources, but also resulting in nutrient losses in the food itself. On the other hand, fresh fruits and vegetables from the farmers market are picked at the peak of ripeness and travel only a short distance to the market where they are often sold the same day. More and more farmers are also becoming either certified organic or practicing organic farming methods—another benefit for our bodies and the planet—which means that you now have access to food that is both organic and local. And while you are boosting your health and that of the planet, buying directly from the farmer also helps Support the local economy. In fact, farmers receive about 95 percent of what you pay for produce at the farmers market compared to only about 15 percent of what you would pay for the same local produce at your supermarket. Local foods are truly the best superfoods for our bodies and the planet. Buying local food benefits everyone.
Navigating the Market
If you decide that this is the year you will take advantage of the wonderful benefits of eating local, you may wonder where to start. Finding a local farm or market to buy your fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers is simple, and the following tips will help get you started:
1. Find a local market near you: Go to LocalHarvest.org and search for local markets by geographic region. You can also search Local Harvest for individual farms, locally owned grocery stores and co-ops, and restaurants that serve dishes produced from locally-sourced and sustainable ingredients. Plan to visit at least one or possibly two markets each week to stock up on the freshest plant-based ingredients. As you frequent the markets more often, you will find yourself making fewer trips to the supermarket, perhaps only monthly, to stock up on other staples like whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans.
2. Join a CSA: Community supported agriculture is also known as “subscription farming.” Members Support their local farmers by buying a subscription to a farm or collective of farms for a growing season. Members typically receive a weekly box or “share” of locally grown vegetables and/or fruits produced from the farm. You can search LocalHarvest.org to search for a CSA in your area. Also ask friends, neighbors, and coworkers for recommendations.
3. Recruit friends. Increase Support for your local farmers market by asking friends to join you on your weekly market trips. If you are thinking about joining a CSA, consider splitting a share with a friend—to save money and waste—by dividing up the bounty of the season each week.
4. Be prepared. When shopping at a farmers market, be sure to bring your own reusable bags or baskets as well as cash. Most farmers accept cash only, and many markets now accept food stamps.
5. Do a walk through. When you arrive at the market, complete a walk-through before making any purchases. This will give you an opportunity to see what foods are available, compare prices, and even taste a few samples before buying.
6. Ask questions. Farmers are passionate about the food they produce. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about farming practices, how to prepare a certain fruit or vegetable, or if you simply don’t know what a food is or need a recipe idea. Farmers are more than eager to share information with their buyers. Many are also eager to open their farms to the public so they can see first-hand how food is grown.
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