Magazine article Vegetarian Times

Farmers' Markets a Trip to Bountiful

Magazine article Vegetarian Times

Farmers' Markets a Trip to Bountiful

Article excerpt

CITY MEETS COUNTRY AT THESE DOWN-TO-EARTH EMPORIUMS

It's market day on a bright spring morning.The trucks rolled in hours before, the sun has come up, the stalls are well stocked, and shoppers, eager to sample the bounty of the surrounding countryside, have begun to arrive. For rustic ambiance, nothing can match the serene spectacle of ripe vegetables and succulent fruits heaped high in sturdy wooden crates and the agreeable bustle of townspeople filling their baskets in flower-festooned, open-air stalls. The earthen colors and rich smells of the farm have been brought into the heart of a city, and life seems better for it.

"Farmers' markets offer direct contact with the people who produce something very important to our lives, meaning the food we eat," says Deborah Madison, the founding chef of San Francisco's popular Greens Restaurant and author of Local Flavors. Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets, to be published in July by Broadway Books. "You don't find that today with the people that make our clothes or our cars, for example. I think this hunger to be a closer part of our communities and to enjoy fresher, healthier food accounts for the recent growth in the popularity of farmers' markets."

If you have ever enjoyed the unique pleasures of one of America's 2,800 farmers' markets, you've taken your purchases home with some sense that they're somehow healthier than what you would have bought at your local supermarket.

But most of us have no idea whether such wholesome-looking produce is in fact healthier for us or, if so, why. Does it matter, really, if those sweet potatoes were grown on the outskirts of town or flown in from 1,000 miles away? How can we be sure that a head of "organic" lettuce is what it claims to be or whether that tantalizing jar of jam with the funky label is not an outbreak of botulism waiting to erupt?

And are there good reasons to patronize these open-air emporiums -where you sometimes pay a little more for the merchandise-besides to soak up the atmosphere?

You bet there are. Squeezed by huge agribusiness competitors, small farmers these days struggle to survive, and farmers' markets provide space for them to sell directly to consumers. Many small farmers stay in business through farmers' markets, where there is no middleman to take some of the profit. "Since there is no middleman at a farmers' market, farmers can grow specialty items and get paid premium prices for them," says Michael Abelman, founder and director of the Center of Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens in Goleta, California. "And they get paid immediately."

You may pay more for farmers' market produce than you would at a supermarket, but Madison says these slightly higher prices are a bargain nonetheless.

"The money you spend at a farmers' market goes directly to the producer, and it stays in the local community, which is good for everybody."

Although many farmers' market producers now include vendors who sell handmade clothes, artisan soap and other non-food items, most exist to promote agriculture alone. "We're a farmers' market, and the focus is on farmers," says Laura Avery, manager of the Santa Monica Saturday Market. "It took us years before we even added bread."

Most farmers' markets require that the produce they sell come from small, local farms. How different farmers' market managers define "local" may vary, but you can be fairly certain that the goods you purchase there were produced and brought from nearby farms.

The distance food travels before it reaches your plate is important, says Joel Patraker, director of the New York City Greenmarket and author of The Greenmarket Cookbook (Viking, 2000). "If food is from a supermarket, it can be trucked up to 1,500 to 2,000 miles," Patraker says. "Even if the produce is organic, there's nothing ecological about the mode of transportation."

Locally grown food has health benefits as well as environmental ones. …

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