Farmers Markets Can Bring Food To Where It's Needed

Autumn is upon us and with it the closing of many farmers markets until next year. These homespun markets have become increasingly popular both in Connecticut and across the country.

In 1986, Connecticut had just 22 farmers markets; this summer 129 were scattered across the state, with around 500 farmers participating. It's a win-win proposition. Consumers love fresh food and the idea of supporting local agriculture; farmers appreciate the chance to sell their products.

But the markets' potential would be wasted if all they did were to sell to well-off suburbanites who already have easy access to any food they want. There's intriguing new evidence that farmers markets can play crucial roles in fighting obesity, which is becoming a national epidemic, and encouraging healthier diets in people who need them most.

Located in the right areas, these markets can bring fresh food to "food deserts" — places where residents have little access to supermarkets and typically rely upon high-priced convenience stores that sell mostly packaged food.

The two state Department of Agriculture employees whose job it is to support farmers markets do excellent work, but they are stretched thin, and they can't do it all.

The state broad supports giving food coupons to various low-income groups, including families and senior citizens, to spend at farmers markets. Yet more leadership is needed, particularly in cities and rural towns, to get farmers markets to areas that need them the most.

Bridgeport's Mobile Market

For example, Mayor Bill Finch in Bridgeport made it a priority to increase farmers markets when he was elected in 2007. When he took office, there was only one farmers market operating in Bridgeport. Now there are five, and three are sponsored by the city in partnership with various organizations, such as the Connecticut-based nonprofit Wholesome Wave.

One market opens up once a week outside St. Vincent's Medical Center. A farmer also brings a truck laden with food weekly outside the city health department, near a low-income neighborhood on the city's east side, far from the nearest supermarket.

This arrangement in particular shows the benefit of a "mobile market" in which a farmer goes into a neighborhood to sell on a regular basis. Typically, says city Health Department Director Kristin Dubay-Horton, 300 to 400 people buy produce from this one farmer, many using food stamps from the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Wholesome Wave donates the machine used to swipe cards in this and many farmers markets, and the city provides the hookup to run the machine.

Farming In School

Bridgeport is also extending the fresh food concept through its education system: 17 out of 35 schools have raised gardens where kids can learn where fresh food comes from, and schools bring in chefs to teach the students simple recipes. The city is also looking at extending the growing season by partnering with city organizations that have greenhouses.

All this puts the emphasis where it should be: getting food to those who need it. If anyone needs more proof of the potential of farmers markets, Wholesome Wave is releasing a study Monday that demonstrates the important role of farmers markets in improving nutrition.

The organization has a popular program in 25 states that matches up to $10 worth of food stamps that recipients spend at farmers markets. Wholesome Wave studied the effect this had on the buying habits of 300 food stamp recipients and their families in three different cities: Giving low-income people access to fresh fruits and vegetables not only significantly improved families' diets, but it appeared to change their decisions about food for the better even two months after the program stopped.

Good food is one of the great pleasures of life, one that can extend life itself. Farmers markets — and the enlightened leadership of government and organizations that support them — are a crucial part of giving everyone these benefits.

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