Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino's top 10 reasons for shopping at farmers' markets

Summertime means fresh produce time, and time to shop at your neighbourhood farmers' market, writes food columnist Andrew Coppolino.

From nutrition to convenience, economics to social engagement, Andrew's list is food for thought

The first floor interior at St. Jacobs Farmers' Market is dedicated to food. The food court is often crammed with hungry visitors. (Allie Caulfield/Flickr)

Summertime is fresh food time, as far as I am concerned. And your local farmers' market is the place to find it.

Farmers' market attendance and farm-gate sales have increased over the past several years, as has the attention paid to where our food comes from. The resurgence of classic and traditional farmers' markets has in good part been responsible for that fact. 

While supermarkets – both small and large – have taken their cue from farmers' markets and have attempted to feature more local food (and good on them for doing so), farmers' markets are one of the best ways to find great local food in season. They have a long and important history of bringing people, food and commerce together. So, in descending order, here are my top ten reasons for shopping your local farmers' market.

10. Help save the environment

Shopping at your local farmers' market can help you be better to the environment. Local producers have to travel a shorter distance to market, so that helps reduce their carbon footprint. According to a 2009 report by Farmers' Markets Ontario (FMO), 67 per cent of vendors travel less than 50 km to reach the market.

If you use your feet to get to your market, that's great. And, bringing your own re-usable grocery bags reduces packaging waste that might eventually be thrown into landfill. (Actually, there are still a lot of plastic bags that get used at markets; do your part and bring your own!)

9. Easily choose organic foods

You can get up close and personal with organic producers and learn more about how they operate in this increasingly important sector of the agriculture industry. The choice to buy organic food is one you may have made for your family, and farmers' markets often have many options and products.

8. Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition

Eating wisely and eating well is important for everyone. Fruits and vegetables brought from the field – often picked the night before morning markets – are nutritious and delicious. And their vibrancy is seductive from luscious local strawberries to the humble celery with its aromatic qualities. 

7. A lower food bill

When in season, farmers' market produce can very often mean a cost savings on your food purchases.

6. Learn about where food comes from

Farmers' markets serve up good food and teachable moments, too. The environment of the market is exceptional for teaching children about where their food comes from and puts a face and hands to the families who grow our food, often just a few kilometres outside of the city. Even parents can learn where and how unfamiliar foods are grown.  

5. Support local farms

According to FMO, almost half of Ontario market vendors say that a majority of their total farm income is generated through farmers' market sales. Therefore, it makes sense to say that shopping your farmers' market means supporting local food and local family farms in a local economy. 

For some smaller producers, this generally means more money in the pocket book that can help a family farm survive and grow in an industry where economic and social pressures have seen the number of small, local farms decline. The report also states that 50 per cent of vendors cited the creation of up to five jobs as a result of market participation.

4. A sensory bonanza

There is a wondrous sensory experience at a farmers' market, generated by the sights, smells, sounds and energy of the hustle and bustle of a fresh, crisp early summer morning. It's a bit of theatre that is impossible to duplicate in a supermarket – and I truly believe that kids can benefit from being exposed to that energy at the same time that adults will be rejuvenated by it.

3. Expand culinary and cooking knowledge

Local markets can help you expand your food and cooking knowledge and encourage you to experiment with new foods and techniques. Whether it is local produce such as rhubarb, Brussels sprouts or an unfamiliar cut of meat, or something like a dragon fruit or plantain, vendors and even conversation with other customers can provide new information and skills that you can bring back to your kitchen to try out.

2. Packed with flavour 

The flavour factor is multiplied several times over when you buy produce like herbs or vegetables that were picked the night before. A fresh, fresh strawberry or beefsteak tomato almost "tastes of the sun" when you buy it only hours from being picked.

1. A sense of community

For me, the number one reason to shop at my local farmers' market is the sense of community that comes with it. I walk through my neighbourhood, a cool breeze and calm and quiet prevail, on the way to the market only to experience a contrasting and dynamic whirlwind of activity and noises and aromas and voices. Musicians strumming guitars or a fiddler singing a Cape Breton ditty is the backdrop to a babble of languages, conversation and laughter.

I will almost always meet a neighbour or a friend at the market, and there is something more intimate about the greeting and our chatting than I would otherwise experience on the sidewalk in front of our homes (and which certainly wouldn't happen in the grocery-store aisles).

And you know what? The farmers and vendors feel the same way: the FMO research cites that community and the social aspects of farmers' markets are a major attraction for them.

The farmers' market is a people place that feeds both body and soul, and has been that way for hundreds of years.

About the Author

Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino is a food columnist for CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. He was formerly restaurant reviewer with The Waterloo Region Record. He also contributes to Culinary Trends and Restaurant Report magazines in the U.S. and is the co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare. A couple of years of cooking as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen helped him decide he wanted to work with food from the other side of the stove.