Today marks the beginning of National Farmer’s Market Week, a celebration of the benefits local markets have on our communities. From supporting local farmers to improving access to nutritious food, farmer’s markets and local farm stands can have positive effects on the environment, economy, and health. In fact, the availability of farmer’s markets is one of the criteria used in the American Fitness Index, an annual ranking of the fittest cities in the United States. Let’s explore some reasons why shopping at a farmer’s market makes good sense. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
First, locally-grown food tastes great! Produce grown locally is picked at the peak of freshness, meaning it is richer in nutrients, not to mention flavor. By contrast, produce that is grown far away is picked before it is ripe, resulting in lower nutritional value and, often, less flavor. As an example, the tomatoes you buy at the grocery store may have been shipped all the way across the country (or overseas), stored in a warehouse until needed, then chemically ripened using ethylene gas so they were bright red when you bought them. Contrast that with a tomato from a local farm, which was picked when fully ripe, driven a short distance, and sold at the peak of freshness. The local tomato certainly tastes better and is better for you!
There is a trade-off, of course, between the convenience of being able to get any fruit or vegetable you want at any time in a grocery store and limiting yourself to produce that is in season at a farmer’s market. However, if you shop at a local market throughout the year you will get a variety of seasonal foods that taste great. As a bonus, you can ask the farmer how to prepare produce you aren’t familiar with, improving the chances you will like it and try it again. Perhaps one of the reasons people don’t care for certain fruits or vegetables is that they are buying them out of season and far from the peak of freshness.
Eating locally-grown food is also good for the environment. Food production and delivery is second only to cars for fossil fuel use and is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Did you know that the food items that make up a typical meal travel about 1,500 miles each to get to your table? In order to maintain a constant supply of the same produce year-round, big grocery stores have to import food from suppliers around the world, even when fresh, seasonal options are available locally. Food from local farms is associated with fewer “food miles” and a lower environmental footprint.
Eating locally also promotes sustainable agriculture and supports farmers in your area. These farms can provide fresh fruits and vegetables to residents who live in “food deserts,” areas without access to grocery stores. These local farms are likely to have a lower environmental impact than a factory farm, and transportation costs will be lower. As an added benefit, the money you spend on food from local farms stays in our area, supporting farmers who live in our community. Farmer’s markets are known for vegetables and fruits, but some markets also sell meat, dairy products, and honey from local farms.
In our community, the Aiken County Farmer’s Market has a long history of providing local farmers a place to sell produce, meat, dairy, baked goods, and other foods to the community. The market is closed now, but you can still shop from local farms. The USDA maintains a directory of farmer’s markets, so you can find local markets nationwide. National Farmer’s Market Week is a perfect time to visit a farmer’s market, whether it is your first time…or your first time this month!