An easy way to eat healthier this summer: Find a farmers’ market

Beverly Merz
Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

June 23 is circled on a lot of calendars at Harvard Medical School. It’s the day the Mission Hill Farmers’ Market will open for the summer, just a couple of blocks from the campus. For the last several years we’ve looked forward to the arrival of the trucks laden with leafy greens, succulent fruit, and fresh flowers. Like the residents of the Mission Hill neighborhood, we know how fortunate we are to have the market.

April Bowling, a doctoral student at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, sums up the benefits we’re getting: “When you attend a farmers’ market, you can have exposure to all kinds of fruits and vegetables that you may not see in your local grocery store. You may try things that you would not normally eat.”

Bowling and her colleagues have studied the effects of farmers’ markets on residents of inner city neighborhoods similar to Mission Hill. In an article published online by Health Promotion Perspectives, they reported the results of a study conducted with Farm Fresh Rhode Island — a food system that supports 11 farmers’ markets in cities across the state. Farm Fresh Rhode Island enrolled 425 families in a program to see whether providing a financial incentive — $20 to spend at a farmers’ market at every third visit to the market — would encourage them to shop at the markets more frequently and to consume more healthful foods.

The research team surveyed a representative sample of 146 people when they entered the program early in the summer and at the completion of the season in late fall. On average, the people reported that they had lowered their daily soda consumption by 25% and increased the amount of vegetables they ate by 12%. More than a third of the participants cited their kids’ willingness to eat more vegetables as the most important reason they stuck with the program. Almost a quarter mentioned the financial incentive.

It’s not surprising that farmers’ markets are steering people toward healthier eating. They are tailor-made for people who are serious about following the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which advise a gradual shift to a plant-based diet centered around vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Moreover, produce may even be less expensive than at the supermarket, and an increasing number of farmers’ markets participate in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and accept electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards.

The bonus benefits

Farmers’ markets do more than offer a unique selection of fresh produce; they also provide an environment that’s conducive to smart shopping. “There’s a culture that’s specific to farmers’ markets,” Bowling says. “You’re surrounded by other customers who are making healthy choices and by farmers who have grown the produce and know how to prepare it.” Many farmers’ markets offer cooking and educational programs for children. You may find local musicians playing, activists circulating petitions, and people handing out notices of upcoming events. They’re great places to cement a connection with your community, which has its own health benefit.

The next time you’re about to head to a supermarket or big-box store to stock up on groceries, you may want to consider the advantages of making a detour to the nearest farmers’ market:

  • Freshness. Just-picked produce is at its peak in flavor and nutrition.
  • Variety. You may find some fruits or vegetables you haven’t seen before or new versions of old standards.
  • Information. You can learn a lot at a farmers’ market because the people who sell the produce are likely to have had a hand in growing it. They should be able to tell you the kind of farming methods used and offer suggestions on preparing the food.
  • Samples. If you’re wondering if the cherries are sweet or tart or if the apples are crisp, ask for a sample. Most vendors are happy to comply.
  • Fewer temptations. There are no “center aisles” filled with processed foods and snacks at farmers’ markets, and no candy-stocked checkout counters.
  • Sustainability. Eating locally or regionally grown produce means less energy is expended bringing it to your table. And supporting regional agriculture is good for your community.

You can find a farmers’ market near you by clicking this link to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website.

Comments:

  1. rob vangely

    Great article, the natural and organic food industry is growing. People are beginning to understand that we have no idea what is really in our food.

  2. Helen Sweeney

    Great article and so true. Local is best. I am now accessing local produce from my communities backyard through a sharing platform call Spare Harvest. Website and app and it looks to be new but could be anywhere if there is excess to share. There are not fees to join and I get to meet the grower as a bonus.

  3. Jenny Kastner

    Our local farmer’s markets in and around Cambridge, MA, aren’t always cheap, but I view them as a treat – with their naturally-ripened, pungent tomatoes, sweet-smelling fruits, homemade cheeses, honey, breads, jams and flowers! A very special treat, which I look forward to every summer. I hope there are blessings raining down on all the dedicated people, including the farmers, who have persisted in making this happen. Particularly in poor communities!

  4. dragoslava

    I totally agree with your suggestion

  5. Eileen

    While CSA’s can be a convenient source they can also be a costly mistake. I have tried different CSA’s over the years, you can’t pick and choose as you can at a farmers market. Granted, you receive what is freshest In CSA’s but I’ve had enough celeriac and kohlrabi to last a lifetime. Last year, I received 2 tomatoes during the entire CSA season, half share 800.00, ugh. I say, take the time to find a great local farmers market and pick what you want when you want!

    • Ashley See

      Eileen,

      I totally agree with your suggestion to consider whether one should be a farmers market customer or a CSA member because there is a strong difference–one you captured well.

      A farmers market customer can pick and choose. Don’t like what the farmer has at market? Go to another market, or another market. Buy nothing and see what they have next week. As a CSA member, however, you then have to be willing to weather the season with your farmer and eat what they grow; sometimes their bumper crops are kohlrabi and celeriac (which aren’t easy to grow). Other times it’s tomatoes. Every season has an abundance of something, but the farmer never knows what it’s going to be. I’m sure your farmer wanted to give you more than two tomatoes more than anything. Tomatoes are hard to grow.

      As a farmer, I can only convey to you how hard it is to grow food for a living. For all the reasons you may have heard before, it’s a damn hard job: little pay for tons of work. So many things about your season are out of your control. And at the end of the day, the farmer feels the heaviness of their failures far more than any complaints will ever touch. It stinks to have a crop fail. It’s so much work flushed down the drain.

      Please remember that the whole point of CSA is investing in a farmer and their season. CSA memberships allow the farmer to get money at the beginning of the season, so they can afford to buy all the things necessary to grow food for the season. It’s a precious relationship built on trust. If you’re not willing to put that trust and belief into a grower then please consider shopping at farmers markets instead.

  6. Jeff Baker

    Great advice, Beverly! Readers can also consider participating in a CSA (community supported agriculture) offered by many local farms. For a fixed one time fee individuals contract with the farm to receive a share of whatever veggies and fruit is harvested each week during a growing season. It is another wonderful way to get very fresh produce and feel connected to the source of one’s food.