Navigating the Farmers Market: Best Food, Best Deals
As summer marches on and the harvests come in, we are surrounded by a growing bounty at farmers markets and local produce stands. What's the best way to shop at a farmer's market? How do you get the best food, for the best price?
Let's start with what we know: There are almost two million farms in the United States, and most are small; many are family-owned. Dozens of these farms operate right here in the Berkshire region, so if you want the freshest food, buying from farmers close to your home is a great first step. These nearby farms offer the freshest produce with the longest shelf-life. Why? Because the travel time between the pick and the plate is short. And getting to know the farmers who grow our food can help us be better consumers and cooks.
Farmers sell directly to the public by way of Community Supported Agricultural programs, farmers markets, food co-ops, u-picks, farm stands and other direct marketing channels. In our tri-state region, some two dozen farmers markets invite farmers to sell local produce, dairy products meat and prepared foods directly to the shopper. Find out which markets are close to you here or visit Berkshire Grown, for more local info.
Here some general farmers market tips:
Get to the market as soon as it opens. Visit each vendor to find out what they're selling and at what price. Go early if you want a special item that might sell out. Alternatively, you might find a great deal at the end of the day from a farmer eager to get rid of their leftover produce.
Buy what's in season – but be patient! Prices tend to fluctuate with supply, so plan for zucchini, strawberries, blueberries or broccoli dishes when these crops are most plentiful. Prices will fall a few weeks after the first crop.
Get to know your farmer. Ask your farmer how to prepare an unfamiliar vegetable, what types of recipes work best or how to preserve produce. If you buy items in bulk when they're in season and know about canning, pickling or preserving, you will be able to enjoy the tastes of summer all year long.
Try samples. One of the best reasons to shop at the farmers market is the ability to try foods before buying. Head to a stand with four different varieties of peaches and pick the one you like best.
Embrace the greenery! Those green leafy stalks hanging onto the beets, radishes and carrots? Those are edible! These greens can be sautéed or mixed up as a pesto. Ask your farmer for some tips.
Know when to buy organic. Buying organic produce is one of the best ways to avoid unwanted chemical sprays and preservatives, but buying organic can cost more. You can pick and choose — but there are 12 fruits and vegetables, known as the Dirty Dozen, which should be purchased as organic whenever possible.
Bring reusable bags. Bring reusable containers or bags to safely store loose berries and leafy greens. Save an old egg carton, as sometimes you can choose your own eggs. If you have a longer drive, keep a cooler in the car if items need to stay chilled.
Eat fresh first. When planning your meals, eat your freshest finds first. Some items you bought might need a few days to ripen up, so plan and cook accordingly.
Learn what types of payments are accepted. Cash is the easiest form of payments, but many farmers now accept debit cards. If you are a WIC recipient, you can access WIC Farmer's Market Coupons, which can be used to purchase fresh produce from farmer’s markets. Talk with your WIC counselor for more information. In addition, many farmer’s markets accept SNAP EBT cards, and Mass Grown offers an interactive map of SNAP-friendly markets.
More questions about shopping at Farmer’s Markets or anywhere? Interested in an appointment with CHP nutritionist? Learn more about CHP Nutrition Services by calling 413-528-9311.
Ashli Minor, MS, RDN, LDN, is a nutritionist with Community Health Programs.