By Barbara Kessler

America’s penchant for fast, processed and not-so-healthy foods is legendary. We drink too much soda, eat too many candy bars, fried foods, refined snacks and burgers in boxes.

But amidst this epidemic of dubious eating is a small, hopeful (and green) countervailing tide. More Americans are shopping actively for fresh fruits and vegetables. Specifically, they are shopping at farmers’ markets.

dallasfm1.jpgGovernment figures show that the number of operating farmers’ markets has nearly doubled in the last ten years (see chart). Now more than 4,300 farmers markets are operating across the country, driven by consumer demand.

Other statistics verify that this undercurrent is real. The USDA reports that Americans ate more fresh fruits (28 percent more) and more vegetables (up 23 percent) in 2000 than they did in the 1970s.

This growth in fresh food consumption and particularly in eating the produce supplied by farmers’ markets is green progress on many levels. Eat more veggies and you squeeze the fatty and processed foods right off the plate. Buy from local farmers and you’re going easier on the environment. (Find a market near you using this map by Local Harvest.)

Brian Halweil, a senior researcher on food and agriculture at the World Watch Institute in Washington, sees this trend as springing from many desires: to be healthier, to avoid food contaminants, to help our local economy and to re-connect with others.

But the change is coming in fits.

“We’re a bit schizophrenic,” he says. “On the one hand we’re not particularly healthy. We eat a lot of fast food. At the same time, many are beginning to appreciate the idea of what’s called “slow food,” food that’s cooked at home, with more fruits and vegetables…More and more Americans are moving in the slow food direction.’’

The movement is small – a couple billion dollars spent at U.S. farmers’ markets compared with the trillion dollars Americans spend at supermarkets and in restaurants.

Still the march – or amble – is on.

“The demand from the public is huge,’’ says Janel Leatherman, market administrator of the year-round Dallas Farmers Market in downtown Dallas. “There actually is more demand than can be met, in the sense that we have fewer small farms and they have more outlets now. They have CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture groups) selling directly to stores and even chefs.’’

It’s true that the number of farms in the U.S. (and other countries) has been declining since World War II. But Halweil also sees the laws of supply and demand nudging new farmers into the game and directing existing operations in new directions, prompting farms to sell directly to the public in a variety of ways.

In his research on U.S. food markets, Halweil noted pockets of economic renewal where small farmers have hooked up with farmer’s markets, CSAs or carved out deals with local restaurants. These success stories have in turn stimulated other growers to find local sales outlets to sustain their business.

In his own neighborhood, on Long Island, Halweil says a longtime potato farmer converted a corner of her acreage to grow organic fruits and vegetables to supply a nearby Long Island farmer’s market. Filling their need helped her diversify.

In New York City, where school children had been inexplicably eating apples shipped in from across the continent, New York state apple growers convinced Big Apple school officials to buy local. The growers got a lucrative contract, the kids got fresher produce and Mother Nature was relieved of untold greenhouse gas emissions.

Across the country, school districts, recently freed by federal legislation to buy produce directly from farmers are adding to the customer base of farmers’ markets.

The markets are also benefiting from a surge in interest in cooking, spurred by the growth of cooking shows and celebrity chefs, says Dave Stockdale, executive director of the non-profit running the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco.

“We definitely see more people coming than we did five years ago,” he said. In addition to the interest in cooking, “I am hopeful that concerns about health are driving this.’’

Ferry Plaza, where some 100 vendors set up every Saturday (and a smaller number come on Tuesdays) is uniquely qualified to fill demand, having been not just a wholesale outlet, but also an advocate for buying fresh, local, sustainably grown food since its inception in 1994.

The market, the second largest in the Bay Area with an estimated 25,000 weekly customers, is run by the Center for the Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, a non-profit group that promotes healthful eating and local food networks as a way to safeguard human health, farmland, water and urban open spaces.

At Ferry Plaza, consumers can find, at various times, more than 50 varieties of tomatoes and almost as many types of peaches. Signs at each stall enlighten discerning buyers about farm techniques. And visitors are treated to interviews with farmers whose produce is then turned over to chefs for cooking demonstrations.

“The education component of it is as important to us as the market,’’ Stockdale says. If a consumer doesn’t know what to do with say, a kohlrabi, the market wants to allay their concerns.

The message: “Don’t be afraid of all this food. We’ll show you what to do with it.’’

Copyright © 2007 | Distributed by Noofangle Media