Farmers markets are on the rise, with more than 8,500 markets now listed in the USDA's National Farmers Market Directory. These open-air markets offer locally grown — and often organic — fruits and vegetables.
Farmers markets are on the rise, with more than 8,500 markets now listed in the USDA's National Farmers Market Directory. These open-air markets offer locally grown — and often organic — fruits and vegetables. The farmers who cultivate the produce often staff their own booths and sometimes sell other fresh homemade products like cheese, nuts, flowers and jams. But the benefits go far beyond freshness. Read on to see all the reasons to check out your local farmers market ASAP.
1. You’ll Maximize Your Nutrition
Grocery store produce may look similar to what you get from a farmers market, but it can differ nutritionally. "Shopping at the farmers market means purchasing foods that are seasonal and local, which leads to eating produce that's at the peak of its nutritional value," says Minh-Hai Alex, a registered dietitian in Seattle, WA. Picked at their peak ripeness, seasonal produce is more nutritious than produce that's been shipped across the country or that has spent days on the shelf. At most farmers markets, there tends to be a selection of organic produce as well.
2. You Can Ask Questions
Shopping at farmers markets allows you to discover new produce and to ask questions about your food, often from the person who cultivated it. "It's great to connect with the farmers who generally love to talk about what they grow and give you ideas on how to prepare it," says registered dietitian Minh-Hai Alex. "Even as a dietitian, I definitely didn't know what fiddleheads were before moving to the Northwest." (Fiddleheads, she learned, are the grassy-tasting, nutritious heads of ferns). To maximize your learning experience, make a point of asking questions. Sellers can guide you to particularly choice items, make serving suggestions and explain how various foods are grown.
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3. You May Fend Off Colds and the Flu
Antioxidants are a top line defense against illnesses, including the common cold and influenza. Your best source of protective nutrients? Eat garden-fresh fruits and vegetables. "Foods purchased at the farmers market are often more fresh than their in-store counterparts," says Becci Twombley, director of sports nutrition at the University of Southern California. "Antioxidants are very sensitive and can degrade quickly, so the more freshly picked the food, the more antioxidant capacity it will have." For maximum benefits, eat a variety of colorful farmers market fruits and vegetables to get a larger range of different antioxidants.
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4. You’ll Broaden Your Palate
Humans are visual when it comes to food. While this may work against you in a candy store, "eye candy" of the farm-fresh variety can provide benefits. "Children and picky adults are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables when they are full of vibrant colors and look appetizing," says registered dietitian Becci Twombley. And farmers markets are the ideal place to expose picky eaters to new foods, she says. If your diet lacks healthy foods, sample at least one new item per shopping trip. Or if your little one has a limited palate, offer gentle encouragement or lead by example.
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5. You're Supporting Local Agriculture
There were 4.1 million farms in the U.S. in 1959, according to the Sustainable Table, compared to 2.2 million today. While the number of farms has decreased in recent decades, the average farm size has increased. The good news is, local farmers markets account for a small but growing share of the total agricultural sales in the U.S. "It's important to support local farmers in this world of agribusiness and an increasingly globalized economy," says registered dietitian Minh-Hai Alex. Your purchases help nearby farms thrive and increase the demand for locally-grown produce, making the benefits of seasonal fare more accessible to the public.
6. And Supporting Your Community
Buying from your local farmers also means supporting your community at large. Locally owned retailers, including farmers markets, return more than three times as much of their sales to their communities compared to chain competitors, according to the Farmers Market Coalition. Local growers also create 13 full-time jobs per $1 million in sales, versus the three jobs per $1 million in sales that industrial growers create. "Selling at the (farmers) market allowed us to start our business slowly," Freddy Kaufmann, a Florida-based small business owner, told the Farmer's Market Coalition. "We wouldn't be here without the market."
7. You’ll Be Protecting the Environment
If your health concerns extend beyond the wellness of your body and into the nourishment of the earth, farmers markets are a win-win. Shopping for locally-grown food reduces total "food miles" (the distance a food product travels from the place of production to the location where it is sold for ﬁnal consumption). That reduces fossil fuel energy use, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.
8. You’ll Save Money
Farmers market fruits and vegetables tend to cost the same as — or less than — produce sold at brick and mortar stores, according to the Farmers Market Coalition. Local farmers sell seasonal fare, which is in plentiful supply, and spend less money on marketing and packaging, allowing them to compete on price. Another cost advantage is that you can buy produce in bulk at the peak of its season and freeze or preserve for later use when the produce might be out of season or more expensive. Farmers also freeze foods such as tomatoes and berries during peak season for later use in salsas and jams.
9. Homemade Goods (Sans Additives)
Homemade foods from farmers markets, such as breads, cakes and sauces, are usually free of artificial additives that may interfere with or don't add to wellness. Most additives intended to elongate a food's shelf life aren't necessary for fresh farmers market food items, which move quickly from the kitchen to consumers. When purchasing sweets from your local farmers market, keep in mind that while they are probably more natural than commercial treats they should still be consumed in moderation.
10. Less Waste Is Produced
When you shop at farmers markets, you'll be grateful to know that all of the food will likely be put to good use. Most vendors can predict how much food they'll sell on a market day and prepare accordingly, according to the Farmers Market Coalition. Unlike grocery stores and restaurants, which toss out excess, farmers tend to recycle leftover food. A farmer might turn leftover zucchini into zucchini bread, kale into kale chips and basil into pesto, later selling these prepared foods at the market. Excess fruit becomes the makings for preserves, pies, fruit leather and trail mix. Some farmers feed unused produce to livestock or compost it or donate extra goods to food charities.
11. Sensory Pleasure and Memory Strength
From colorful displays and the hum of music and conversation to the aromas and tastes of savory food samples, farmers markets are a sensory feast. In addition to the sheer pleasure of it, research shows that sensory stimulation can preserve the youthfulness of your brain, reports Linda Wasmer Andrews in Psychology Today. Multi-sensory stimulation is occasionally used as supplemental therapy for dementia. Sensory-rich environments may also help delay age-related memory loss and prevent the formation of proteins in the brain associated with Alzheimer's disease. To boost these potential perks, make a point of interacting with others and absorbing sounds, sights and flavors.
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12. Better Weight Management
Shopping at farmers markets provides numerous weight-control perks: physical activity, exposure to nutritious, whole foods and heightened awareness about food. Fruits and vegetables are nutrient-dense, providing more vitamins, minerals, water and satiating fiber per serving than processed foods such as pretzels, white rice and soft drinks. The Farmers Market Coalition found that close proximity to farmers market is associated with a lower body mass index. Becoming more mindful about your food choices combined with routine activity both lend themselves to healthy weight control.
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13. You'll Build a Sense of Community
"Local farmers markets are a natural place to mingle with your neighbors," writes psychologist Linda Wasmer Andrews. Immersing yourself in farmers market crowds, she says, can provide a sense of belonging, a healthy trust in your neighbors and the sensation that you matter. Shopping for locally grown products at community markets also allows you to interact with like-minded individuals and potentially make new friends. Also, according to the Farmers Market Coalition, people who frequent farmers markets have 15 to 20 social interactions per visit versus the one to two interactions that would have occurred in the grocery store.
Read more: Find a farmers market near you with the USDA's online directory
What Do YOU Think?
Whether you shop at your local farmers market often or occasionally, remember to load up on nutritious, whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Shifting your dietary lifestyle to incorporate more nutrient-rich fare invites a variety of benefits. Do you shop at farmers markets? If so, which foods do you generally purchase there and what benefits do you experience? Any tips or benefits to add? Let us know in the comments below!