Health Benefits of Farmers Markets
If you are lucky enough to have a local farmers market, you have access to an enticing array of produce, fresh and in season ― and a lot more ― from local farmers, bakers, artisans and vendors.
Melinda Cater, a dietitian at Johns Hopkins, helped start a farmers market in her own neighborhood in 2011. She has some delicious ideas about how shopping at your local farmers market can add nutrition to your meal planning and health to your family and community.
Are there nutritional benefits to shopping at farmers markets?
Definitely, says Cater. “Produce from local farmers has spent more time on the vine, on the tree or in the ground, so you get better taste and more nutrients,” she says. “When it comes to fresh fruit and vegetables, the shorter the time and distance from farm to sale, the higher the levels of vitamins and minerals.”
What are the best things to buy at a farmers market?
For the best taste and nutrition, experts agree that you can’t go wrong with fruits and vegetables in season.
If you don’t know what grows when, there are plenty of ways to find out. Cater says some vendors and even the markets themselves have email threads you can sign up for and social media sites you can consult before you visit the market to find out what foods are likely at their peak. “For instance, our local market has a produce calendar by month saying what’s likely to be available,” she notes.
“As you get in the habit of going to the farmers market regularly, talk to the farmers and sellers. They’re happy to share, and will tell you what’s good that week and what they’re likely to bring next time,” she adds.
Cater points out that most farmers markets don’t have just fruit and vegetables. You can buy bread, eggs, pastries, meat, fish, homemade soups, olive oils and other goods. “The great thing about the markets is that the sellers are often the producers: They raise, grow, harvest, bake or prepare the products themselves.”
What foods should you avoid buying at farmers markets?
“In general, use your senses to assess the quality and freshness of the food you’re buying at the farmers market,” Cater says. “Avoid produce with wet or slimy leaves, and keep an eye out for produce that is changing color, such as green veggies that are turning yellow. Be on the lookout for mold, and avoid produce that smells foul or bitter or that is abnormally soft.
“Especially during hot months, buy perishables such as meat, poultry, fish and eggs last and transport them in a separate bag from fresh fruits and veggies to help avoid cross-contamination,” Cater says. She recommends bringing an insulated bag or cooler to keep these items and dairy products cool until you can get them into the refrigerator, especially if you aren’t heading straight home.
“In terms of prepared foods, observe the vendors. They should be wearing gloves when handling foods, and changing gloves when moving between raw and cooked foods. If you have any worry that foods are not being properly refrigerated or cooked, you’d do best to avoid them.”
Cater points out that the following foods may pose health risks, especially for children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.
- Raw sprouts such as raw mung bean, radish, alfalfa or clover sprouts, can be risky in terms of food poisoning. They are typically grown in warm humid conditions, which can foster bacterial growth. Cater does not recommend buying raw sprouts at a farmers market since they might not be properly refrigerated during transport.
- Raw milk and cheese should be avoided, even if your area permits the sale of these products. Cater says the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics all advise against consumption of raw milk as it may contain multiple pathogens that can cause vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and flu-like symptoms.
“Some people tout the health benefits of raw milk compared with pasteurized milk, but those claims are largely unsubstantiated and not worth the risk of getting sick,” Cater advises.
Storing and Freezing Fresh Fruit and Vegetables
You may leave the farmers market with a large amount of produce, and you don’t want good food to go bad. There are many ways to preserve produce, including freezing, drying and canning. Learning some of these techniques can be a rewarding way to keep healthy vegetables on your table all year long.
Farmers markets that take place on Saturday or Sunday provide time for some food prep, Cater notes. “Spending a little time washing and preparing your fruits and vegetables over the weekend makes it easier to have them handy throughout the week when you’re busier.”
Cater says each type of produce is a little different in terms of how to handle it, and it makes sense to look up particulars for freezing and storing the items you buy. Here are some suggestions for common farmers market purchases.
- Preparing leafy greens: Separate leaves from the head. Soak for 10 minutes in cold water, and swirl to remove dirt; dry in a salad spinner, or pat each leaf with a clean towel. Keep greens separated from orchard fruits, bananas, avocadoes and tomatoes, which emit ethylene, a natural compound that can make salad greens go bad more quickly.
- Herbs and asparagus: Wash in cold water and spin, and wrap in a damp (not wet) towel; refrigerate. For basil, trim the stem ends and put in water like you would flowers; do not refrigerate.
- Keeping berries fresh: Rinse the berries and lightly dry on clean towels; store in the refrigerator in a slatted container or small strainer or colander so water does not collect in the bottom.
- Melons: Wash the outsides, which can harbor germs that can get on your cutting board and other surfaces when you slice them.
- Freezing vegetables: Trim stalks, remove seeds from peppers, and cut large vegetables into bite-sized pieces. Blanch to kill germs, brighten color and lock in nutrients. Freeze separated pieces on a baking sheet, and store in a vacuum-sealed freezer bag. Do not freeze tomatoes.
- How to blanch: Cook in boiling water (about 1 gallon for every 2 cups of vegetables) for two or three minutes, drain, and place vegetables into a bowl of ice water.
- Freezing fruits: Wash berries and sliced orchard fruits, but do not blanch them: Simply freeze on a baking sheet.
Recipes for Fresh Produce
Farmers and vendors at the markets can advise you on how to prepare and enjoy fresh herbs, vegetables and fruits, which can be helpful when you’re trying something new.
Farmers Markets: Growing Healthier Families and Communities
More and more markets are popping up in urban, suburban and rural areas alike, providing access to fresh, local foods and helping to inspire healthier lifestyles.
Visiting your local farmers market can be a fun and healthy family outing. Cater says bringing kids with you to the farmers market is a great practice. “Letting children select produce, meet working food providers and try new fruits and vegetables can help them feel involved in meal planning and inspire healthier eating habits.”
Just as individuals and families can benefit from the presence of farmers markets, so can entire neighborhoods. For instance, farmers markets help communities that otherwise may not have abundant access to fresh fruit and vegetables.
“Neighbors of all ages and backgrounds can gather, try new things, learn about healthy foods, where they come from and how to prepare them,” Cater says.