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Good Intentions Always in Season at Farmers Markets

• March 20, 2010 • 5:00 AM

Although shopping at the farmers market may or may not reduce your carbon footprint, these community bazaars offer benefits beyond efficiency.

The coming of spring means different things to different people. For college students, it’s the debauchery of Spring break. For baseball fans and TBS audiences, it’s the return of Major League Baseball. For Midwesterners (and, this year, Washingtonians), it’s in a welcome respite from winter storms. But for farmers across America, it means the return of the farmers market.

If you’ve never been to a farmers market, close your eyes and imagine an avenue of folding tables brimming with vibrant vegetables and fruit and spilling melt-in-your-mouth local products like cheese, hummus and fresh-baked bread. In California, at least, it’s an open-air bazaar where, rain or shine, local farmers and artisans sell their goods back to their community with an idyllic synergy reminiscent of a simpler time (that probably never existed).

The concept underlying farmers markets is to get eaters in touch with those who produce their food. In a highly processed, dollar-menu world, that’s an admirable goal, and it draws a diverse group of customers, from low-income shoppers looking for cheaper produce to high-minded professors hoping to support local agriculture and eco-friendly foodies seeking out the best ingredients for their quinoa salads.

To hear some locavores talk, farmers markets sound like the be-all end-all of solving the Earth’s problems. Their logic: The food at these markets travels a shorter distance to get to your kitchen than the food on your grocery store’s shelves, which significantly reduces its (and your) carbon footprint. By supporting local agriculture, you’re pumping money into your local economy. And by eating locally available foods, you’re also eating seasonally, which is not only sustainable, but can have dietary benefits, too.

Farmers markets can be a great way to educate and provide people with biologically diverse food options, including but hardly limited to the heirloom tomato (the posterproduce of food biodiversity) or the heirloom apple. As Emily Badger noted in her article, “We Gotta Eat ‘Em to Save ‘Em,”, eating biodiverse foods is one way to ensure that Broad-Breasted White turkeys won’t gobble up the Earth.

Farmers market champions cite their ability to improve public health, lower food prices and, perhaps most contentiously, reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Can farmers markets single-handedly save the world? Probably not. But they embody a growing thread in an increasingly “global” world: a focus on the local.

Farmers markets are sprouting like weeds: Since 1994, the number of farmers markets in the U.S. has increased from 1,755 to 5,274. There was a 13 percent increase between 2008 and 2009 alone.

It’s important to note, however, that farmers markets still represent a relatively small piece of the pie. In 2008, there were approximately 85,200 grocery stores nationwide (this number includes both supermarkets and convenience stores), which means that there are still more than 15 grocery stores for each farmers market in the United States.

As they’ve grown in popularity, farmers markets have also undergone changes. Gail Feenstra, the food systems coordinator of the University of California, Davis-based UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, describes the change as a slow buildup over a number of years.

“In the very old days, they were more or less produce,” she said. “Maybe 15 years ago, you started seeing more value-added products — dried tomatoes, peaches, jams and other things. That was stage two. The next stage, I would say, tended to be increasing the variety of the kinds of foods you would see at the markets. Then you would see more types of different foods; now you have the fish guy, the pig man and the milk man. Proteins in particular are much more common, and there has also been an increase in the amount of dairy present. Today, I can get almost everything I need at the farmers market.”

Feenstra attributes the growing popularity of farmers markets to an increased awareness about climate change and public health. “When it looked like the global supply of energy was going to be limited, people immediately started looking more locally. They started asking themselves, ‘How do I create a more resilient local-food system for me and my family?’”

She noticed that around 2000, people started looking for ways to eat better. They realized that farmers markets offered a lot of vegetables and saw them as a good place to start. “Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, spread the movement to a much larger portion of the population,” she said. “Popular education and awareness kind of exploded there.”

In the United States, research suggests it costs significantly more to eat healthy than to eat processed. As Food, Inc. points out, when a family has a few dollars to spend on food per day, why would they buy a few apples if they can buy a Big Mac for the same price?

Farmers markets may help mitigate that problem. In Canada, Kristian Larsen and Jason Gilliland found that the addition of a farmers market to a “food desert” — an urban location with poor access to healthy and affordable food — significantly reduced the cost of eating a nutritionally balanced meal. Another team of Canadian researchers found that local food environments can lead to obesity and suggests that improving access to natural food — farmers markets, anyone? — can combat this trend.

Plus, as Jaydee Hanson argues, eating locally has food safety perks because it minimizes the number of places your food has been. “It won’t keep you from getting sick,” she said, “but at least you’ll know who made you sick.”

Unfortunately, in food as in politics, things aren’t always what they seem, and it’s important to read the fine print. Simply going to the farmers market isn’t a guarantee that anything you buy has been grown by a local farmer. At many farmers markets, local chambers of commerce have given the go-ahead to commercial growers, who sell customers the same vegetables they likely could buy cheaper at the grocery store.

A 2009 Mother Jones article by Danielle Duane highlights the pressure faced by farmers market managers to grow the markets. And grow them they do, with street performers and restaurant booths selling breakfast burritos and doughnuts, with the only local ingredient most likely being the person making them.

Although theoretically these attractions might bring a new breed of shoppers to support their local farmers, one study found that they simply cater to a different clientele. Some markets focus on prepared foods, targeting the people who make the farmers market a Saturday morning activity. Others focus on different types of shoppers, ranging from the casual browser to the serious buyer. Either way, the markets self-select their customers, and not all of these customers are all that interested in locally grown food. (Neighboring retail stores hoping to lure farmers market shoppers are out of luck, too — the same study found that the markets are a one-stop shop.)

But Feenstra sees the prepared food at farmers markets as a good thing. “My opinion is that it brings more people to the market,” she said. “Sometimes those people don’t end up buying stuff from vendors, but sometimes they do. Just being there increases awareness. If they go there enough, they’re going to start understanding and experimenting.”

When market managers were asked in the USDA’s 2005 National Market Manager Survey why people came to their markets, the top three reasons offered were freshness, taste and access to local food, which suggests that the main draw of farmers markets may be the superior taste of the products.

But isn’t it more efficient — and therefore better for the environment — to buy local food at the farmers market? The short answer is not necessarily.

First off, what exactly does “local food” mean? Does it mean food grown in your city, state, country or backyard? There is no universally accepted definition. One study from Iowa State University found that more than two-thirds of participants defined local food as having traveled 100 miles or less (as the locavore Web site does); Feenstra says that for growers, local is anything that they can do in a day’s drive.

With the typical American meal consisting of ingredients from five or more countries and the average fresh produce in America traveling 1,500 miles or more, the connection between “food miles” and greenhouse gas emissions may seem obvious.

But food miles aren’t the only way to measure your carbon forkprint. Researchers in the United Kingdom argue that food miles aren’t even a useful way to measure the environmental impacts of food production. Instead, they say, the entire production system needs to be taken into account. Was the produce grown in a greenhouse? How were the livestock raised? These on-farm practices can have as big an impact on greenhouse emissions as food transport — and in some cases, an even bigger one.

Research aside, the reality is that with the average farmers market customer spending about $10 per trip, very few people survive entirely off their farmers market purchases, which means that the farmers market potentially is an extra trip in a gas-guzzling SUV that might not otherwise be made.

A New York Times article points out if a strawberry producer in California ships his berries to Chicago in a truck, the fuel used per carton is relatively small because the truck bed is carrying thousands of them. If, however, the same strawberry farmer takes a much smaller quantity of the fruit to his stand at the local farmers market in his pickup, he might use more fuel per carton than would the berries shipped to Illinois.

And although people may be willing to pay more for locally grown food, they aren’t necessarily willing to pay more for food with a lower carbon footprint. Feenstra said a carbon footprint is only one of a few factors that can attract someone to the farmers market. Getting the freshest, tastiest produce and supporting local agriculture also attract customers.

And efficiency isn’t the only factor that influences a farmer’s decision to sell at the farmers markets. Most farmers sell at a number of outlets to “hedge their bets.”

“Some growers who love selling directly would never not do it, but it is costly in terms of the time they have to spend at the market,” Feenstra said. “In terms of efficiency, it may not be the most efficient way to sell local produce, but it has benefits beyond efficiency that cannot be understated.”

So if green is your goal, it might be more productive for you to reduce your meat consumption (save the phosphorus!) than become a locavore. If, however, you are looking for a more sustainable way to eat, engage in your community and boost your local economy, supporting your local farmers market can be a good first step.

“Increasing awareness of local agriculture is important in effecting change in public policy,” Feenstra said, “and wanting to support local agriculture is as important as wanting to promote efficiency.”

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Elisabeth Best
Former Miller-McCune Fellow Elisabeth Best is currently pursuing a Masters of Pacific International Affairs at the University of California, San Diego School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, where she is the editor in chief of the Journal of International Policy Solutions. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara in June 2009 with a BA in global studies and a minor in professional editing. As an undergraduate, she wrote for The GW Hatchet and Coastlines magazine and hosted “The Backseat” on WRGW.

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