By Allyson Koerner
With summer just around the corner, farmers markets are starting to appear on street corners, public squares and neighborhoods in cities across the country.
Boston, Chicago, New York and San Francisco are just a few popular places where markets are springing up for urban communities to purchase, experience and enjoy freshly grown goods.
Farmers markets sell locally grown fresh goods all over the United States. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Web site, nearly 4,800 farmers markets exist throughout the country today.
Interacting with the farmers and community is a great way for consumers to learn about food quality.
“We have to educate people about the agricultural cycle, because we’ve gotten divorced from it since grocery stores,” Hannah Freedberg, development and outreach director at the Mass Farmers Markets said.
The nutritional values decline as soon as the food is picked, Sabine Hrechdakian, GrowNYC’s special projects and publicity manager said. Imported food loses taste and becomes old when it travels a long time in contrast to what is offered at farmers markets.
“The quality of food is so much fresher and it’s important to know where food comes from,” said Karen Seiger, New York City market enthusiast and founding author of the blog Markets of New York City. “Food is shipped from halfway across the world and we are all responsible and play a part in preserving food.”
A variety of quality foods are supplied at farmers markets that are not available at grocery stores.
“It’s so much more than going to buy what’s on your shopping list,” commented Hrechdakian. “There is a genetic diversity; for example, grocery stores only have six to ten varieties of apples whereas markets sometimes have up to 88.”
In Washington Heights, the neighborhood has a Caribbean and Dominican feel where up to 20 different kinds of hot peppers are sold, Seiger said. Farmers bring what neighborhoods want and need.
In Chicago, markets offer heirloom vegetables to show the importance of how goods are precious and can become extinct, said Sara Gasbarra, children’s program chair at Chicago’s Green City Market (GCM). For example, GCM funds an heirloom garden, which contains a Mayflower bean that was brought over on the Mayflower.
The range and uniqueness of food has helped farmers markets expand over the years.
“Within the last five to eight years there has been a renewed interest in eating locally,” Freedberg said. “From 2004 to 2008 farmers markets in Massachusetts have doubled.”
This year, there are 50 markets with more than 200 producers within 250 miles around New York City, Hrechdakian said.
In Chicago, the markets are continuously growing boasting more than 125,000 visitors and more than 55 farmers that will attend this year, noted Lyle Allen, Chicago’s Green City Market executive director.
Farmers benefit from the market expansion because the markets help them keep their farms running and support them financially.
“Why would you want to give your money to some mega huge farm that’s producing huge amounts of food that’s thousands miles away, when you could get it from someone who grows it in backyards,” Gasbarra said.
“Farmers markets keep small family farms vital and alive,” Hrechdakian said. “Farmers have said 85 percent of them would be out of business if it wasn’t for green markets.”
According to Seiger, farming is not an easy living and farmers have to be passionate about the work. People should take the time to visit markets, because culturally it’s a good thing to do, she commented.
Farmers markets have also become popular places over the years as they turn an impersonal grocery store experience into a personal activity where people can directly interact with the growers of their food, some market experts said.
“People are sick of shopping at grocery stores and having it be an impersonal experience,” Gasbarra commented. “There is something really special about going to farmers markets and talking directly to the person who grew the food.”
Markets have changed the traditional shopping experience and turned it into a life changing experience for some.
“People are starting to realize that having a connection with the grower makes a difference,” Gasbarra said. And according to Allen, “experiencing food first hand is a life changing experience.”
The farmers markets also create personal experiences as the customers get to know their community.
“It [farmers markets] connects you to the community. You meet people in the community, engage with each other and it becomes a social experience,” Freedberg said.
People can benefit from farmers markets because there is community building, they can receive advice from farmers or fellow shoppers about cooking and preparing food and there is interaction where one can powerfully connect with nature in an urban environment, Christine Farren, administrative and events manger for Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) said.
“In this world it’s a race through life and in a city we don’t have time to breathe, but when you can stop and pick a peach it’s personal,” Seiger said.