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Farmers markets feed the 100-mile diet

  • Story Highlights
  • Concerned foodies vow to buy only locally grown food in September
  • Cited: Freshness, conserving energy, contributing to local economy
  • Farmers markets may be open limited days, hours
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By Victoria Spencer
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(LifeWire) -- If the food hasn't been grown within 100 miles of where we live -- we won't buy it. That is the pledge concerned foodies across the country are taking for the entire month of September.

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New York's Union Square Greenmarket farmer's market offers produce and meat from regional farms.

At its extreme, the 100-mile diet means no coffee, no spices and no chocolate. Most people don't go that far, but they do embrace buying food grown and raised locally where possible.

Freshness, energy conservation and contributing to the regional economy are among the reasons people offer for buying local food. It's a growing trend across the country.

Farmers markets

Estimated sales at farmers markets rose from $888 million in 2000 to $1 billion in 2005, according to a 2006 USDA survey.

There are now more than 4,300 markets nationwide -- an 18 percent increase from 1994 through 2006 -- where local farmers sell directly to the public the fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy and baked goods they have grown, raised, caught and made.

Shoppers surveyed since 1990 say they most appreciate farmers markets for their high-quality, fresh produce -- the vegetables, herbs and fruits often are harvested within 24 hours of being sold. Photo Visit Union Square Greenmarket farmer's market »

Produce sold in supermarkets, on the other hand, has traveled an average of 1,300 miles from farm to shelf, according to the University of Massachusetts Extension, and is chosen for its ability to withstand industrial harvesting and shipping.

Shopping at a farmers market, though, is not for everyone. For starters, the markets usually are held outdoors, once or twice a week, so convenience is an issue. Also, vendors sell what is in season locally, which means fragrant strawberries in the late spring but not in the winter.

In some ways, though, farmers markets offer more choice. Sheila Neal, manager of the Carrboro Farmers' Market in North Carolina, says that farmers markets sell "a diversity and variety of fruit and vegetables not found in the supermarket." While a grocery store may carry three varieties of pears year round, an orchard stand at the market may offer more than 10 varieties when the harvest is at its peak.

How do prices at farmer's markets compare to those offered by supermarkets or grocery stores? There is little current research on the subject and what is available looks at small sample sizes. Two older, more rigorous studies, one from 1994 and the other from 2002, give the price advantage to farmers markets.

"Experience with my own market suggests that there is a relative price advantage with supermarkets because of economies of scale. But I suspect price differentials vary widely from community to community," according to Duncan L. Hilchey, an agriculture development specialist with the Community and Rural Development Institute at Cornell University.

He added that "when you add up all the external costs such as environmental damage, the pollution generated by long-haul transport, water supply subsidies to Western farmers (who are large suppliers of supermarket produce), and the social costs of poorly treated farm labor, I believe you will find that food purchased from you local farmers market is much cheaper."

Social, environmental reasons

Buying local food also can be a social statement. Shoppers buying from local farms are supporting the regional economy, helping to preserve family farms and getting to know the people who raise their food. There's also an environmental benefit to buying local food. Farms are relatively close to the markets where they sell their food (usually within 50 to 250 miles), so they use less energy and other resources getting their produce to market.

Responding to consumer demand, large and small food store retailers have increased the amount of organic food on sale but the larger operations, in particular, face challenges in buying local given their high-volume and centralized distribution systems. Whole Foods Market Inc., which operates a regional distribution system, has hired foragers to seek out more regional items for their stores.

Taking a share in a farm

Community supported agriculture groups, or CSAs, are one way to take buying local food a step further. By paying to join a CSA farm, consumers essentially take a share in the farm for the season, typically late spring through early fall, and in return receive a box of produce from the farm each week.

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New Yorker Mary Jo Johnson says being part of Norwich Hill Farm CSA "has helped me to try a lot of things I'd never tried before, like kale and kohlrabi." Others say the unpredictability and, sometimes, unfamiliarity of the produce makes it hard to prepare meals but CSAs usually provide advice and recipes to help.

For CSA member Johnson, the motivation for shopping local is both political and practical. "It makes me feel connected to the people who are producing what I need for my health," she said. And, it is "so much fun." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Victoria Spencer writes about food and entertaining and is based in New York City.

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