We say April showers bring May flowers, but for me, May is a happy month for another reason: it marks the beginning of farmers’ markets in Evanston, Illinois, the city where I live and go to school. After a long, cold winter, the coming of May means sunny Saturday mornings at a market just down the road, ambling through stalls of fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers and baked goods. Neighbors come to stock up on produce and chat with vendors, while artists showcase their paintings and musicians strum guitars for a gathering crowd of kids.
I developed a soft spot for food markets when I studied abroad last year in France, where local food is an important part of daily life. Since returning to the states, I’ve noticed that farmers’ markets are getting more popular here, too. There are about 6,132 farmer’s markets across the country, and thanks to the USDA’s Food Environment Atlas, it’s even possible to map their locations. The atlas, which gives a spatial overview of factors like farmers’ markets, food taxes and grocery stores, helps show which communities have access to healthy food. Unfortunately, it reminds us that many neighborhoods aren’t as lucky as my own. Just this month, the USDA also released a national map of food deserts, which are found in low-income neighborhoods whose residents must travel far to reach the nearest grocery store (beyond a one-mile radius in cities or a 10-mile radius in rural regions). It’s interesting to place both maps side by side, considering how the absence of farmers’ markets relates to the presence of food deserts.
Beyond the obvious implications for public health, how do communities hurt when they don’t have access to good local food? We tend to think of farmers’ markets as a way to help the environment or get fresher produce, but they also serve an important social purpose. According to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, they reinvigorate public spaces and foster relationships by giving shoppers an opportunity to talk with vendors about the food they’re purchasing. In an essay for The New York Times, Pollan explains that people are 10 times more likely to stop and chat at a market than they are at a grocery store. We exchange not only food and money, but also our ideas.
I think it’s good news, then, that farmers’ markets are on the rise. Last year, the USDA announced the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program, which will give $10 million in grants over 2011 and 2012 to improve existing markets or create new ones. In some states, farmers’ markets are also acquiring equipment that can process the debit cards used in state food stamp programs, allowing more low-income people to buy their groceries at a local market and build stronger relationships with their neighbors.
We Want to Know:
- Does your neighborhood have a farmers’ market? What’s your favorite part about it?