Friday, May 28, 2010

Farmers' Markets: Community Development, Green Opportunities, and Better Nutrition

Markets are vibrant, exciting places where you can usually find a mix of people and products. They suggest a time when commerce was more personal. Whenever I have the chance to explore markets (like supermarkets) I take it—and can easily spend hours browsing the stalls, trying samples, and talking to vendors eager to make a sale. (I also just like to see what people are buying.)

I was in Union Square on Monday and caught the tail end of the day's farmers' market (there is a regular farmers' market and a seasonal holiday market that appear in Union Square). The remaining stalls were still bustling though wares had thinned considerably. I couldn't resist dawdling just a bit, and you're invited to linger with me. The Union Square market gives us a unique look at "local" life, drawing in people and products from the area. And it gives us a look at local agriculture—there's more to local New York foods than "dirty water dogs."

Living in an urban environment, it's easy to lose sight of how and where your food comes from. In many ways, the average consumer is trained to think that strawberries and tomatoes must come from Florida—which may be true in December but not necessarily in May—and as a result, overlook seasonal opportunities to buy and enjoy local produce. You'd be amazed at what you can find at farmers' markets. On eastern Long Island, I've come across eggplants as large as my head, the sweetest corn I've ever eaten, and fresh crisp apple cider in the fall. At Union Square, duck, fresh eggs, grain fed beef, strawberries, artisan breads and cheeses, plants, and even artwork were for sale on Monday. And if I had been earlier, I would have found t-shirts, handmade jewelry, incense, and more—not produce, I know, but an example of the ways farmers' markets can invite and expand economic opportunities for small businesses and consumers.

What can you find at the Union Square Farmers' Market? View the slideshow below to find out:

Farmers' markets provide farmers with an important means of selling their products directly to the public. By taking out the wholesalers, farmers are able to reduce their own costs, and there are immense benefits to the hosting communities as well. Local businesses have reported increased business on the days that farmers' markets are open, and have learned, according to a report from the Farmers' Market Federation of New York, how to promote their businesses on market days, with everything from specials to longer hours. Farmers' markets are also a draw for tourists who add cash back into local economies as they purchase goods and take advantage of local services. And there have been instances of businesses growing out of market appearances—market bakers, for example, who have gone on to open permanent establishments in the local hosting communities. The large consumer base and the popularity of farmers' markets also encourages other business ventures to open stalls (my homemade jewelry vendors mentioned above, for example), and in this way can be an important source of support for early entrepreneurs.

I've talked before of the role of the fruit vendor in helping provide access to fresh produce to folks who otherwise may not have access to these goods, and his role in helping to reduce carbon food prints. While there was some question about where his goods were coming from and the true carbon food print of his wares, with farmers' markets food definitely travels fewer miles, using less fuel and less packaging, to get to your table. Food is also fresher, which increases flavor and nutrition, and decreases the chances of contamination.

And we can't really overlook the human factor in all of this. If you're a market regular, you eventually come to develop a relationship with these growers and their staff—you have a better sense of where your food comes from and who is involved. And this may be an important element in changing people's attitudes about healthy eating. The more interaction with have with food and its producers, the greater our awareness of what food is and the less likely we are to turn to heavily processed, prepackaged foods as a main part of our diet. For this reason, markets are particularly important in poorer communities that often even lack proper supermarkets, as this can be a huge factor in increasing opportunities to access healthier food options.

The availability of farmers' markets encourages people to think about local food production. As the public becomes interested in green endeavors and healthier food choices, farmers' markets in urban communities provide proof that agriculture isn't limited to breadbasket regions. As urban dwellers begin to explore options such as rooftop gardens, individuals are more empowered to control their diet and consumption patterns.

I'd love to see images from farmers' markets near you. Send me your photos and I'll assemble them in a public album to share on this site. And share your farmers' market experiences with me as well. What do you buy regularly? What else do they sell at your markets? How has the community responded?

Let's chat, Readers.

No comments:

Post a Comment