Food and Health, Food Industry & Politics

What You Need To Know About Farmer’s Markets

It’s that time of year when farmer’s markets are opening their doors once again (at least those that are not open year round) and local patrons will be looking for fresh, locally grown produce.  But it’s not just produce you find at farmer’s markets these days.  There’s all kinds of products from jellies and jams, to beef jerky, to coffees and teas, and even fresh meats.

If you are a farmer market shopper, then congratulations!  You are doing a great service for your community and the environment by providing local farms with your business.  If you’ve never been to a farmer’s market, or local farm, for fresh produce and other products, then I highly encourage you to work it into your weekly routine.  However, there are some things consumers should be aware of when shopping at farmer’s markets.

Not All Products Are Healthy

We tend to associate farmer’s markets with healthy food.  The truth is.  If you buy a local jelly or jam loaded with added sugar from a local farmer, it really isn’t any healthier than what you find in the grocery store.  Added sugar is added sugar and even too much of natural sweeteners can be a bad thing for your health.  If the grams of sugar are not listed on the label, ask the seller how many grams of sugar are in one serving.  Approximately 4g equals one teaspoon of sugar.  It’s really best to stay away from excessively sweetened products even from local vendors, but let’s face it.  We all need a treat some time.

When it comes to buying packaged food at a farmer’s market the rule is pretty much the same as the grocery store.  The best way to determine if it is truly healthy is to read the label.  Products with lots of preservatives, excessive added sugars, or high sodium content are not any healthier than similar products from major corporations.

Not All Products Are Organic

People are largely confused by the organic label and you won’t see any organic labels at the farmer’s markets.  This isn’t because the produce is not organic, it’s because there is a lot of red tape and cost to go through before you have the privilege of using the USDA organic label on your product.  Local farmers simply don’t have the resources to provide what is needed for use of the label.  However, it’s important to realize that locally grown does not necessarily mean organic, and in many cases you are not buying organic just because you buy from a farmer.

Most farmers will write the word organic on a sign to indicate any produce that is organic.  This means the produce was grown without conventional synthetic pesticides that are highly toxic to the environment and human health.  However, there are certain pesticides that are approved by the USDA for use on organic crops.  Because of this, big business often tries to criticize the organic industry as being no better than conventional farmers.  It’s a complicated subject, but if you want an article that helps simplify it for you then check this out from The Organic & Non-GMO Report.  The bottom line is that organics are far superior for human health.   In the case of local farms, they may not be using any pesticides at all.  If it is marked organic by the farmer, then you can be sure it follows organic standards.  If you are not sure, just ask.

Meats May Not Be Grass-Fed or Pastured

There is a meat market at one of my local farmer markets.  I assumed because it was at the farmer’s market it was grass-fed beef and pastured chicken from local farms.  After purchasing from them for nearly two months I decided to ask, “Is this all grass-fed beef and true free-range chicken?”  The owner looked at me and said, “Excuse me?”  It never occurred to me that he didn’t know what I was talking about so I just repeated the question thinking he didn’t hear me.  He responded by saying, “Oh yeah, yeah.”  For nearly two years I did business with them, but realized while their pricing on many products was higher than the supermarkets, the ground beef was awfully cheap compared with other grass-fed beef distributors.  So, after nearly two years I asked again, “Is this grass-fed beef and pastured chicken?”  The same man, who had obviously now been trained on how to answer this question said, “All the cows start on grass for 4 months and are finished on grain.”  I said, “Wow, so it’s not grass-fed beef.”  He repeated himself.  I said, “Right, so it’s not grass-fed beef.”

He said, “Ma’am, I just told you all the cows eat grass for the first 4 months.”

Now I got a little upset.  I explained to him that ALL cows start on grass for 4 months because they would die if they didn’t.  Grass-fed beef cannot be “finished” on grain.  In fact, the worst thing you can do to the nutritional value of beef or any meat is “finish” the animal on grain.  It basically means the animal came from a CAFO that is the source of environmental, animal health, and human health issues.

He said, “I told you they start on grass.”  He actually went back and forth with me for a bit when finally I said, “There is a specific definition of grass-fed beef under the rules of the USDA and this meat does not fall under it.  If someone comes in here and asks if this is grass-fed beef the answer is simply ‘no.’  If you say anything else you are purposely misleading your customers.”  Then I walked out and took my business to a local farm.  I also learned that day that the meat came from Michigan.  It was even local to Virginia!

Do not assume you are buying grass-fed beef or pastured chicken just because it’s being sold at the farmer’s market.  Ask the farmer if you are in doubt, but you shouldn’t be in doubt.  Anyone selling grass-fed beef and/or pastured chicken will gladly have a sign up indicating it is such.

I know the battle to understand what truly is healthy and what isn’t seems never ending.  Still, I highly support shopping your local farmer’s markets.  They are one of the best sources of food we have and keeping local farms alive and well is vital to our future.  The less we give to the corrupt food industry, the more motivation corporations will have to change their ways.  Don’t be fooled into thinking different.  We can make a huge difference with our spending power.  Look at the change already taking place in the major supermarket chains.  We are demanding different, healthier foods, and slowly but surely we are getting them.

Support your local farms, always!

About Laura Cadoret, MS

Helping people see the big picture in food industry and nutrition
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