Next week, (August 2-8) is National Farmers Market Week as proclaimed by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and the nation's 4,800 farmers markets have a lot to celebrate!
The USDA started recognizing National Farmers Market Week in 2000, and since then the number of markets listed in the USDA official directory of farmers markets has swelled over 170%. This means opportunities for hundreds of thousands of producers to sell directly to millions of customers wanting fresh food. In turn, these customers support farmers, while tending to their own health, building their local communities and strengthening their regional economies.
Healthwise, many experts would agree that fresh food is the cornerstone of a healthy diet. At farmers markets, the produce, meats, cheeses, breads, eggs, and other food available are often the freshest possible. To this end, many hospitals are getting on the farmers market wagon, including Kaiser Permanente, by developing a holistic program to integrate farmers markets into their patient and employee wellness plans. Kaiser now hosts scores of markets in six states including California, Hawaii, Oregon, Colorado, Maryland, and Georgia. Hospital-hosted markets are also emerging at independent hospitals in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Port Angeles, Washington, and Camden, New Jersey.
Federal and state nutrition assistance programs are also using farmers markets to invest in healthy lifestyles across all income levels. Now, more than 3,300 markets accept Women, Infant and Children (WIC) Farmers Market Nutrition Program vouchers and more than 3,100 markets participate in the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP). In 2008, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service reported that over $40 million was spent at farmers markets through these two programs alone. There are also innovative programs, like the Nourishing Neighborhood initiative sponsored by the Wholesome Wave Foundation, which double the value of these coupons, making shopping at farmers markets the ultimate two-for-one bargain deal.
Farmers markets are also critical tools for sustainable urban and rural development initiatives. In cities, the location of farmers markets have been deliberately integrated into community development plans as an added-value asset. Just last week in Bentonville, AR (home to Walmart HQ) Daniel Hintz, the executive director of Downtown Bentonville Inc. said "It simply makes sense to position the farmers market as an integrated component in our downtown development strategies." Greenmarket, a non profit umbrella organization that manages 46 thriving farmers markets in New York City, works with the city government to specifically identify market locations that will best benefit hosting neighborhoods. Thus, market sites in NYC include city streets, parks, or public transportation hubs in high income and low income communities alike. Moreover, as the state faces budget pressures, New York state is now offering mini grants to farmers markets for infrastructure support, investing in the belief that healthy, well run markets make for healthy, well run communities.
In more rural areas, farmers markets preserve the local agriculture heritage and identity while providing jobs and community building initiatives. For instance, in 1999, there were just 17 markets in Alabama involving about 230 farms. In 2008, the number of markets jumped to over 100, with over 1,000 farmers participating. At each market, local growers and customers meet, mix, and make their community stronger. This happens in small towns across the country on each market day -- from Brattleboro, VT to Fayetteville, AR to Hanalei, HI.
Farmers markets are also a prime example of how local businesses can successfully stimulate local economies. In Iowa, nearly $20.8 million dollars of economic activity was generated by farmers markets and 324 jobs were specifically linked to farmers market in 2004 and the state now ranks among the top ten for number of farmers markets in the country. In Washington State, farmers markets sales were at a hefty $55 million in 2007, soaring from $38 million in 2006. And, restarting the Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans was a key element in the city's post-Katrina recovery, restoring normalcy and jump-starting economic activity. Now, twice a week, the city's flagship farmers market contributes an estimated $8.8 million to the regional economy, unifying farmers, fisherman, and a diverse spectrum of city residents all committed to helping New Orleans thrive.
So as National Farmers Market Week approaches, and market season reaches its peak in most places around the country, know that when you buy a tomato, peach, ear of corn or fresh bread at the farmers market, you are buying it because it probably looks good and tastes even better. But you are also buying into your health, your community, and your economy.