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Is fresh produce an upper-class luxury? Maybe not.

Posted on Mar 12, 2013 by in Blog in Pics, Community, Featured, Hunger Relief | 0 comments

Is fresh produce an upper-class luxury? Maybe not.

It is a common misconception that farmers’ markets cater to the wealthy.

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The goods I took home from a farmers’ market in February

Just a couple weeks ago, while perusing the organics section of my local produce market, I realized just how often I’d been purchasing my fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ markets and through Farm Fresh To You, a CSA. The apple I’d just picked up was covered in a waxy film, presumably to prolong ‘freshness’ and ‘improve’ appearance. I found myself disgusted, longing for the less-shiny, unmistakably fresh Pink Ladies and Fujis available at the Sunday market.

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My first farm box from Farm Fresh To You

But it wasn’t just the apples. All the produce, at both the produce market and the big-name grocery store, looked abysmal compared to what’s offered at my farmers’ market. The oranges, tomatoes, lemons, and celery all seemed to wilt ever so slightly under the artificial light, barely resembling their bright, perky, colorful counterparts that hang out under tents and draw you in with their smell just a block away every weekend.

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Was I becoming a snobby shopper who only shops at upscale weekly markets?

Just as I was starting to wonder if I was becoming an annoying foodie, Grist published an article about how farmers’ markets stand to benefit the poor the most. I decided to do a little digging.

Fresh-squeezed orange juice from a 10-pound bag of well-priced oranges from the market

Fresh-squeezed orange juice from a 10-pound bag of well-priced oranges from the market

As it turns out, says Susie Cagle, the article’s author, “Low-income shoppers are actually the real farmers-market power users, buying bigger shares of their groceries at the markets than at other stores compared to middle- and high-income shoppers.” In fact, most of those low-income shoppers believed they found better prices at the market than at the grocery store, and I agree with them. After bringing home my farmers’ market bounty this weekend, I compared prices for the same items in the same amounts from Safeway. The verdict? Shopping at the market got me fresher produce and supported local farmers while saving me $2.

So what’s stopping more low-income families from purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables from the farmers’ market? Cagle argues it’s a lack of basic information.

While the farmers’ market in my town isn’t as likely to attract a lot of low-income shoppers, the Jack London Square Farmers’ Market in Oakland, CA is. Sarah Trent, Promotions Coordinator for the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association, says that all the Pacific Coast markets accept CalFresh (food stamp) cards, as well as WIC (supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children) benefits – and not only do they accept food stamps, they offer customers an additional $5 when they purchase at least $10 with their CalFresh cards at participating markets. Michigan has a comparable program that offers even more rewards for shopping at farmers’ markets called Double Up Food Bucks – the amount of food stamp money (up to $20) spent by a consumer at the market is matched by the Double Up Food Bucks program, and can be used towards Michigan-grown produce. Similar programs exist at some markets in Connecticut, California, New York, and Massachusetts. Those are some pretty sweet deals.

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Hand-picked strawberries grown in a friend’s backyard

The produce (and baked goods, specialty food items, flowers, cheeses, meats, eggs, coffees, and other artisan creations) at farmers’ markets is impressive, and shopping primarily at a local market puts one more in touch with the seasonality of food. Had it not been for my frequenting the market, I wouldn’t have known that while fruits are limited in the winter, persimmons grace us with their presence during the month of December, their sweet nectar as addictive as sugar. I wouldn’t have discovered kale’s ability to pump up a stir-fry (thanks to Happy Boy Farms for creating the “Stir Fry Greens Mix”) or learned that strawberries make their debut in late February. I wouldn’t have discovered the incredible fractal patterns on Romanesco broccoli, nor would I have become enamored with the strong, sweet fragrance of the narcissus bunches I can no longer pass up.

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Romanesco broccoli

But while the produce from the farmers’ market allows a wide array of fresh food from within a relatively small radius (I haven’t found any red peppers from Mexico or asparagus from Peru) for a decent price – the Project for Public Spaces found that of those low-income shoppers who did not shop at the farmers’ market, only 17 percent cited price as an obstacle – there remains an even more inexpensive way to eat locally and provide fresh produce to those in need.

Making a purchase through The Urban Farmers, one fruit tree will cost about $25. This tree will produce hundreds of pounds of fruit every year, allowing the tree owner to collect more than enough to satisfy his or her family, with still hundreds of pounds to spare. Try spending $25 on canned fruits and vegetables – that might last a family of four two days, and many nutrients will have been lost in the process.

During a single harvest, The Urban Farmers can collect more than 700 pounds of fruit in about four hours. The average person eats about five pounds of food per day, which means that one day’s harvest can feed 140 people for one day, or 70 people for two days. Calculating in the cost of transportation, fruit harvested by The Urban Farmers runs between twelve and sixty cents per pound – try finding prices that low on fresh, organic fruit anywhere else.

My own home garden on my apartment patio - not only does it give me fresh lettuce and herbs, but offers a serene place to eat breakfast on a cool morning

My own home garden on my apartment patio – not only does it give me fresh lettuce and herbs, but offers a serene place to eat breakfast on a cool morning

The tremendously low-cost food harvested by The Urban Farmers gets donated to local hunger relief agencies, providing low-income residents and at-risk families high quality nutrition that would otherwise be unavailable.

Have a fruit tree or know someone who does? Register with The Urban Farmers to donate excess fruit. Don’t have a fruit tree but still want to help? Register as a volunteer and attend an upcoming harvest. And while the planting season is over right now, it’s never too early to start planning for your future tree – you can purchase one through The Urban Farmers to plant between December and mid-February.

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