Like many people, here at RealJock.com we do our grocery shopping on the weekends. So every Saturday morning we head off to Safeway to… wait a minute; there’s something wrong with this picture. Why? Because in the same amount of time and for the same or less money, we could go to our local farmers' market and enjoy a pleasant morning buying genuinely healthy, locally produced food. What's more, by doing so we would be helping the environment.
Perhaps you’re a bit daunted by the farmers' market; after all, how can you tell whether you’re getting a fair deal? To help you navigate the fast-growing but confusing world of local farmers' markets, we spoke with Rebecca Spector, west coast director for the Center for Food Safety, a non-profit food and sustainable farming advocacy organization, to give us some advice for getting good food and good deals at the farmers' market. To find out why eating locally may be better for your health, we also spoke with Emily Bender, a certified nutrition consultant, author, and member of the faculty of the Hawthorn Health and Nutrition Institute, to tell us how buying your food at the farmers' market contributes to a healthy diet.
Getting Started: Why Go Local?
Buying produce and other food products from local farmers isn't just a good thing for the local farming economy. Benefits abound. Here's the short list:
- Fresh is better: Locally produced food is fresher and has more nutrients, because it was picked right before being brought to market. “Every minute between picking and eating costs fruits and vegetables nutrients,” says Bender. Because it’s fresher, the food tastes better. Tomatoes that ripen on the vine, for instance, taste better than tomatoes ripened on a truck. And it doesn’t just taste better; the food is healthier as well. Locally grown food is more likely to be organic, free range, or grown in soil that produces diverse crops, which is better for the food and for the environment.
- Al Gore is watching: Farmers' markets are good for the environment. The food is locally produced, so by purchasing food that travels fewer miles in gasoline-powered trucks, you reduce your carbon footprint.
- "Think globally, act locally” applies: By buying at your local farmers' market, you support local farmers. “At a farmers' market, 100 percent of every dollar you spend goes straight to the farmer who produced the food," says Spector. "At a grocery store, it’s seven percent of every dollar—the rest goes to all the middlemen. Farmers are struggling as it is to stay in business; this is a way to give to them directly.”
- Meet your maker: At the farmers' market, you can actually talk to the farmers who produced the food—so you can ask questions and learn what you need to know about the products you buy.
- A healthy, balanced diet: Most farmers' markets only sell food that is in season. “In a modern grocery store,” Bender says, “you can buy anything, year round—strawberries in January, whatever you like. But actually, that’s a big problem, not just for the planet, but for your diet.” Most of us eat in a perpetual rut. We find something we like, eat it over and over again until we’re sick of it, and then move on to another food. But this isn’t very good for you, as it does not provide a full spectrum of nutrients. The farmers' market can fix the problem. “If you just eat what looks good at the farmers' market, you’ll be eating with the seasons,” Bender says, “and that will provide you with enough variety in your diet without you ever really needing to think about it.” Of course, in colder climates you will have to supplement your farmers' market fare to round out your diet, but even then your staples will be seasonal.
With all of these advantages, you may think that products at your farmers' market will cost much than those at a grocery store; certainly this is a complaint you often hear about farmers' markets. However, studies have shown that this is a myth: “Pound for pound, farmers' markets are competitive with supermarkets, says Spector, "[although consumers should be aware that] prices will be regionally specific.” A price comparison study conducted by the Southland (California) Farmers' Market Association found the farmers' market slightly cheaper than the supermarket, an effect confirmed by a Seattle economics class, and by a blogger in San Francisco examining prices in what many consider a very expensive farmers' market, the San Francisco Ferry Building.
If you want to save even more money at the farmers' market, Spector recommends going later in the day, when the farmers reduce prices to sell off whatever produce they have left. Because farmers' market produce is picked when it’s ripe, it can’t just go back on a truck to wait another week; it must be sold or it will go to waste. “You can definitely get discounts later in the day," says Spector, "but the disadvantage is that there’s less choice.”
Questions for Farmers
You can really maximize the value of your farmers' market dollar by talking to the farmers directly. Spector says that at her organization, “We strongly believe that when you’re buying food, you should get what you think you’re getting.” So what does one ask a farmer at the market? Spector provided some important questions to ask the purveyor of your local produce:
- Where was this food grown/raised? You might think that anything at a farmers' market was grown three miles down the road. Unfortunately, it may not always be so. “'Local' could mean anything in any place," warns Spector. "It’s a new buzzword—but it’s not regulated, so you should definitely ask where the food physically came from.” The farmer from down the road may have a few hundred acres in Mexico—in other words, his business is local, but his food isn’t. If you’re concerned about giving to your local farmers and reducing your carbon footprint, always ask where the food was produced.
- Is your food organic? A “no” in answer to this question isn’t necessarily bad. “Organic” is, unlike “local,” a regulated term. “To be certified organic is a bureaucratic process," Spector says, "one that some growers don’t want to pay a premium for.” So you may be able to find farmers whose products are pesticide-free and also cheaper, because they are not passing on the price of the organic label to you. It’s worth finding out, and may save you some money.
- Are there other relevant techniques that the farm employs? Farmers, organic or not, may also use other techniques to make their food healthier or more environmentally friendly. One such practice is crop rotation, where farmers grow a wide variety of crops at one time, and/or rotate different crops onto different patches of land each year. A technique like this won’t get an organic label on its own, but it’s healthier for the soil and reduces the need for pesticides.
- Are there any instructions on refrigeration or freezing, or a use-by date, that I should know about with this product? “One complaint people sometimes have about food from the farmers' market,” Spector says, “is that is can go rotten faster [than supermarket produce]; this is because it’s fresher when you buy it” and isn't covered with preservatives. That said, the farmer may have tips on how to extend the freshness of the food, such as storage tips.
- How was this cow/pig/chicken raised? As with produce, many of the terms surrounding meat can be murky. "Organic" is a USDA certification, and involves (among other things) the absence of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and genetic modification (for more information, see the USDA web site). But there are also terms like "grass-fed," "free range," and "humanely raised," for which government certifications are non-existent or still being developed, and among which there is significant overlap. As a general rule, Spector says, “If you care what your meat ate, you are interested in organic or grass-fed; if you care how it lived, you are concerned with free range and humanely raised.” But, she says, if you really want to be sure, you need to ask the farmer for details and make your judgment based on those, rather than labels.
As not all farmers' markets are regulated, when buying food at the farmers' market you need to be a little vigilant. Some states, like Texas and California, have certification processes for farmers' markets, where the farmer can only sell food he or she grows. In general, at the farmers' market you should also be suspicious of non–seasonal food. “If one stand has tomatoes in February, they probably weren’t grown in the US,” says Spector. Anyone selling hot-weather fruits and vegetables in the dead of winter should prompt you to start asking questions.
Get Started: Search Locally
To find a farmers' market near you, go to the LocalHarvest farmers' market finder and type in your zip code. And remember, at the farmers' market it’s BYOB (bring your own bag).