Food sold at local farmers markets tends to be fresher and better-tasting, because it doesn’t spend as long in transit. The shorter travel time is easier on our environment since it doesn’t create as much packaging waste or need to be driven across the country.
One Valentine’s Day a few years ago, I was visiting a classroom of third-graders, and brought along some chocolate-covered strawberries. The kids were understandably excited about the chocolate, but some were confused about the fruit underneath.
“What is this?” asked one of the boys. When I told him it was a strawberry, he looked puzzled and told me that he had never seen a real strawberry before. I think my jaw just about hit the floor. This kid had never seen a real strawberry, much less tasted one straight from the field.
But in a world where milk comes from a carton, not a cow, and tomatoes are shipped in from Mexico, some people are taking a stand and encouraging a more local approach. The locavore movement is gaining popularity quickly, spawning a huge number of farmers markets all over the country. Last year, nearly 7,200 markets served up fresh, in-season produce and other foods in the U.S., up from about 6,100 in 2010 and 2,800 in 1998.
The movement is even gaining popularity among professional chefs. In a recent National Restaurant Association survey of 1,800 chefs, three of the top four menu trends this year include local food. The top trend is locally sourced meats and seafood, followed by locally grown produce at number two and hyper-local items at number four.
Proponents of farmers markets and shopping local say they love the freshness of the food, getting to know local farmers, helping the environment and keeping their money local. Some just like to know where their food is coming from, while others enjoy the whole experience.
The carbon footprint of food distribution in the United States is large, and that “fresh” produce at the store isn’t as fresh as you might think. Most produce in the country is picked four days to seven days before it appears on the shelves. And that’s only food grown within the U.S. Many of our fruits and vegetables come from Mexico, South America and even Asia and can spend up to two weeks in transit.
All of that transport eats up a lot of oil and releases a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. For example, an Iowa State University study found that between production and transportation, a 10 percent increase in production for local shoppers could save up to 346,000 gallons of fuel and reduce up to 7.9 million pounds of annual CO2 emissions.
That’s not even taking into consideration the amount of plastic, Styrofoam and other packaging that goes into preserving and shipping foods over long distances. As one shopper noticed, the processing and shipping can detract from the taste of the food as well.
“The quality of produce tends to be better from the farmers’ market since usually, it is harvested more recently due to less time in transport,” says longtime farmers market shopper Mallorie Marino. “It lasts longer and I’ve noticed a distinct difference in taste as well, especially with tomatoes and peaches. They’re much better from the market!”
Locally produced foods reached about $4.8 billion in sales in 2008, according to the USDA, up from about $4 billion in 2002. That’s about 1.6 percent of the $300 billion U.S. market for agricultural products. Right now, about 5 percent of all U.S. farms participate in some sort of local selling, whether it’s a roadside stand, a community supported agriculture program, a U-pick program or farmers market.
The money spent at farmers markets stays local, as well, going back into the community’s economy instead of a mass producer out of state or out of country.
That’s part of the reason Mallorie chooses to buy produce, herbs, flowers, pasta, honey, bread and more at the local farmers market. “There is a benefit to eating locally grown food because it keeps the money within our area, which can be reinvested to further enrich where we live,” she says.
The local grocery store might have better prices on food, but the price tag isn’t the only thing shoppers are considering.
“I think there is a benefit to eating locally grown food because it helps the agricultural economy and health wise, it is more beneficial as there are fewer hormones and pesticides,” says Katie Honn, who says locally grown food just tastes better to both her and her fiancé. “Although I do tend to get most of my food items from a grocery store as the prices can be cheaper, I have always found that the produce I’ve bought from a farmers market is richer in flavors and ripeness than what I have bought at the grocery store.”
Farmers know just about everything about their foods, and can tell you how to choose a ripe tomato or how to preserve raspberries. Many vendors will even save the best products for their best customers, so get to know the famers at a market near you if you want the full farmers market experience.
“It’s a great community event where people can meet,” says Peg Mallet, manager of the Wayland Winter Market at Russell’s Garden Center in Massachusetts. “In my mind, it’s a great way to bring community together as a destination in support of these farmers or specialty food producers. I love that in a world where so much is mass-produced, we’re seeing sympathy for the local farmers.”
Peg says she sees a lot of families with young children coming to the market to explore and experience the local fare. It’s a great chance for parents to teach their children about culture, nutrition and the basics of where the food on their plates comes from.
“I love to shop at the farmers market because everything is local, the atmosphere is uplifting and wholesome, and it makes me feel more enthusiastic about eating healthy,” says Mallorie, who often meets up with friends for a cup of coffee before heading out to the market. “I love that you can sample most of what you buy as well. It also is a great way to get outside and take my baby for a stroll, now that I’m a new mother!”
It’s a great way to get to know the farmers as well. With their encyclopedic knowledge of their food, they can tell you how to pick a ripe tomato, how to preserve raspberries and even which wines will pair well with their meats and cheeses.
“I like the friendly, earthy feel of a farmers market,” Katie says. “My favorite thing is hearing vendors yell out prices and how they will chat with you for hours, even haggle with you over the price of their produce. It’s fun!”