Shop Smart at Farmers' Markets
There are more than 3,000 farmers’ markets operating in the United States currently, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, generating in excess of $1 billion annually. Is there any difference between buying from a chain supermarket and your local farmers’ market? Yes, says E Magazine, the online environmental magazine, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is your family’s health.
Aboutproduce.com has boiled down the benefits of eating more fresh fruits and vegetables: reduced risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, obesity, and some types of cancer, including cancer of the stomach, esophagus, and lung.
Yes, but…don’t we get the same nutrients from the produce sold at chain supermarkets? Not exactly, says Lola O’Rourke, a registered dietician in Seattle and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “Fruits and vegetables contain their highest levels of nutrients when harvested fully ripe and eaten soon afterwards,” she says.
Unfortunately, much of the produce available at national chains is trucked in from all over the country, often picked green, treated with chemicals to retard ripening and dipped in wax. Much of the produce is weeks old when you buy it in your grocery store. In contrast, locally grown food travels only a short distance from farm to table. It’s pulled from the ground or plucked from trees and bushes 24 hours before consumers purchase it, and brought to market in reuseable containers.
Farmers’ markets’ produce is so fresh, Lola O’Rourke says, “the wonderful flavor of truly fresh produce tempts people to eat more of it and that’s a real health benefit for virtually everyone.”
New York City’s Greenmarket special projects market manager Gabrielle Langholtz agrees. “You don’t need to be a gourmet to recognize how much better this food tastes. Unlike the fruits and vegetables from big commercial growers, which are bred for durability and their suitability for mechanical harvesting and handling, [farmers’ market] vendors choose varieties for their flavor and pick them at the peak of ripeness.”
The benefits of farmers’ markets are far-reaching: They help preserve farmland and the rural landscape; insure the continued economic viability of the small family farm; counter the growth of agribusiness with its devastating impact on people and places, while supporting clean, environmentally sensitive farming practices; conserve energy; help maintain biodiversity in food plants; and contribute to regional prosperity.
It’s important to choose your purchases wisely at your local farmers’ market. The North Dakota University Extension Service recommends the following guidelines:
• Buy only the amount you can use in a short period of time to avoid having to throw away spoiled produce.
• Look for produce that is free from unusual odors or colors and signs of spoilage such as mold.
• Handle produce gently to reduce bruising. Bacteria can thrive in the bruised areas. At the grocery store, keep fresh produce on top of other foods in a shopping cart — and separate from fresh meat — and set it down gently on the counter at the check-out line.
• Remember that buying underripe produce isn't always the best option. Peaches, cantaloupe and nectarines are examples of fruits that may soften during storage, but they won't ripen.
• When buying cut produce, keep it cold during transport. Put it in a cooler with ice if traveling a distance.
• Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water before handling produce and any other food.
• Wash all fruits and vegetables with cool running tap water right before eating. Don't use dish soap or detergent because the FDA hasn’t approved or labeled these products for use on foods.
• Scrub melons with a brush and running water, because bacteria can be transferred from the outside of the melon to the inside by a knife.
• Don't cross-contaminate: Use clean utensils and cutting boards when peeling or cutting up produce. Wash cutting boards with soap and water, rinse and sanitize between uses. A solution of 1 teaspoon bleach per quart of water is considered safe and effective.
• Cut away bruised parts before eating. Remove the outer leaves from lettuce and cabbage.
• Avoid serving sprouts to at-risk populations like the very young, old, or those whose immune system isn't able to function at normal levels. For example, people undergoing cancer treatment often cannot eat fresh produce.
• Keep fresh cut produce cold by placing serving containers on ice. Perishable food should spend no more than two hours in the "danger zone" (40 to 140oF).
• Store produce in containers that are free from excess liquid.
• Refrigerate cut produce and use within a few days.