Tips to shop better at your local farmers market
By Charles Stuart Platkin
Going to a farmers market is romantic and inspirational, especially if you’re a foodie, but even if you’re not, it still has many pluses. Here are a few tips to get more from your next farmers market shopping spree.
Find a farmers market: Are you looking for a market? The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a fantastic search engine with more than 4,000 listings. Go to http://search.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/. The site allows you to search anywhere in the country for farmers markets in your area. It also lets you search by specifics, such as products -- baked goods, cheese, fish, fresh fruit, nuts, plants, honeys, jams, and soaps -- and even by payment methods accepted. You can also check out LocalHarvest.org.
Eat fresh and local: Buying at a farmers market ensures that you are eating the freshest foods, and that you are choosing locally grown. To find out what fruits and vegetables are in season check http://bit.ly/7NVtA.
When you’re deciding what to prepare for dinner look online and find recipes that use the fruits and vegetables in season. Here are some websites with recipes.
•Allrecipes.com, a Reader’s Digest Association (RDA) brand.
•Myrecipes.com has recipes from magazines and cookbooks you love and trust, including Cooking Light, Southern Living, Sunset, Coastal Living, and Real Simple and Health.
•Food Network.com. Click on the Healthy Eating tab on the top navigation bar.
•EatingWell.com, a Vermont-based website and magazine.
•Epicurious.com. Go to the Recipes & Menus tab and select Healthy.
Look for phone apps for these sites as well. If you’re at the market and see a veggie you would like to try in a recipe, just plug it into the app on the spot and come up with recipes.
Go early: Get the pick of the crop. The best and freshest foods go first -- so get an early start.
Talk it up: Get to know the farmers. Ask them what is the best of the seasonal produce that week and how to prepare it. Farmers are foodies and many will have great recipes and tips, said Kathleen Hiraga, president and founder of Organics Rx (www.organicsrx.com).
Find out who grew it: The idea of going to a farmers market is to buy locally grown, fresh-picked produce. However, Calvin Finch, Ph.D., a master gardener and the project director of regional initiatives and special projects for the San Antonio Water System, suggests that some vendors may have purchased the produce they’re selling from a wholesaler rather than growing it themselves. According to Tim Lymberopoulos, owner and founder of Fooducopia.com, some vendors bring produce that is grown in neighboring states and/or countries. Locally grown produce is fresher, tastes better, and can contain more flavor and nutrition because it is ripened on the plant. Do a little due diligence by asking where the produce was grown and what’s in season.
Fresh picked: “Some fruits and vegetables, like sweet corn and peas, quickly begin to lose their sugars within a day or two of harvest,” Finch said. Be sure to ask the farmer when the produce he’s selling was actually harvested.
Bring cash: Not all farmers take credit cards. Make sure to visit an ATM or call and find out ahead of time.
Go for quality, not beauty: According to Terra Wellington, author of The Mom’s Guide to Growing Your Family Green (St. Martin’s Press), you need to go for quality, not necessarily beauty, at the farmers market. If the product looks decent and comes from an organic farm that consistently gives you great product and taste, that is the grower you should support. We have been trained by vegetable and fruit associations to think that the perfect tomato looks a certain way. But if you’ve ever tried an ugly heirloom tomato, you know that it will be the best tomato you’ve eaten in years.
Be community-minded: Talk to the person standing next to you. You’ll be surprised at what you can learn simply by asking a question, making a comment or offering a smile. “Farmers markets create a great opportunity for community mindedness. You can learn a lot by striking up a conversation with a person nearby, such as new recipes, ideas, shopping tips, new fruits, and vegetables to sample. The list is endless,” said Michael Hurwitz, director of the Greenmarket Program in New York City.
Try something new: “Farmers markets carry hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables that are not available in supermarkets, so don’t be afraid to ask. Farmers always have some new discovery or something interesting to discuss,” said Hurwitz.
See the market manager: Go to the market manager’s stand and ask questions. “The market manager will more than likely have new recipe ideas, know the weekly deals, which fruits and vegetables are in season, which are the new farmers and/or new products, and will be able to tell you about cooking demonstrations taking place at the market. The manager’s stand is a great place to interact and to get your market bearings,” said Hurwitz.
Just wait: According to Greenmarket director Hurwitz, who is responsible for more than 53 markets in New York City, it’s not always a good idea to buy new fruits and veggies when they first arrive. Instead, wait 10 days to two weeks into the season for the finest picks.
Is it organic? You can ask to see the farmer’s certification, but it’s important to note that it takes three years for a farm to become certified. Many farms are in transition and aren’t using pesticides, but they may not have their certifications yet. It’s a matter of trust, looking the farmer in the eye and believing that he or she is telling you the truth. Trusting your farmer is very important, says Ann Gentry, author of Vegan Family Meals (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2011).
Charles Stuart Platkin, Ph.D., M.P.H. is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of DietDetective.com.