Photo by Ron Jasin

June 30, 2010

Locavore Lore: Fresh, local and close

Farmers markets are springing up in every neighborhood

There is a farmers market in your neighborhood. There also is a farmers market today. You should find one — it could change your relationship with the food you eat.

Most people do not make the connection between what they eat and agriculture. They know the food they eat is grown on a farm — somewhere — but most could not actually tell you what kind of farm — or where — their food is coming from. We’ve come to know berries and tomatoes to be available year-round. We expect to be able to eat what we want when we want to eat it. The truth is, everything we eat originates from a farm at some point. That’s right: It’s not just tomatoes and collard greens that come from farms — pizza, Thai food and Coca-Cola all come from farms, too. (What type of farm is a different story.)

The majority of grocery stores provide a sterile shopping experience. We walk down well-lit aisles and mindlessly put things in our basket without thinking about their origins. The most communication we might have is when the cashier asks us if we’d like to pay with debit or credit. If you choose a self-checkout aisle, you might not have to talk to anyone at all. When you leave the store, you are as ignorant about your food as you were when you came in. You have no idea about the bumper crop of peppers this year, or how bad the late frost affected the berry season.

Shopping at a farmers market is a different experience. You talk and interact with the people who are growing your food, and you unknowingly create a connection with the food you are eating. Suddenly, you start to understand growing seasons, and while you couldn’t get something a week ago, the crop is just starting to roll in. When you go home to cook up and dine on these newly acquired goods, it’s like a short-lived treasure. The asparagus season might be gone, but it is just signaling the upcoming return of ripe, delicious blackberries.

Farmers markets have sprouted up all over the city as a result of a growing popularity. There are 29 farmers markets in Jefferson County between those registered with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and those listed on the Metro Louisville website. While the number and knowledge of vendors varies dramatically from market to market, each is an opportunity to score fresh, seasonal produce. By eating produce that is recently picked and picked when ripe, we are eating foods that are not only more nutritious, but also more flavorful.

While some Louisville naysayers (aka “haters” who may lament that we don’t have the cool factor of other progressive cities with huge city block-sized markets), I’d argue that our farmers markets are characteristic of our neighborhoods and are a more sustainable way to bring local foods to people across the city, with many people not even needing a car to get to the market near them.

There are definite advantages of having so many markets, the main one being the support of growers of all sizes. While some growers and producers may be able to meet the demands of the larger markets in town, there are many urban and smaller-scale producers who couldn’t. There’s a market for everyone. While some people like the bustling farmers markets held on Saturday mornings, others prefer the more laid-back environment of weekday markets. Perhaps even more important is the opportunity for neighborly interaction. When you are able to shop in your own neighborhood, it enhances the sense of community and ownership for that community. On the other hand, if your neighborhood market is not happening on the day you are in need of produce, going to a different farmers market is a great opportunity to get out and explore neighborhoods across the city.

Just as the farmers are cultivating our food, we also learn to cultivate relationships with those who are producing our food. Instead of unnamed, uninterested consumers walking the aisles like zombies, we have the option of the food counter-culture. The people we buy food from might actually know our name, and the carrots we are eating may have a story. After you have had your market experience, you have a story, too. It’s certainly a lot more interesting than buying your food at Super Wal-Mart — and now that local produce is available any day of the week, in any neighborhood in the city, what’s your excuse?

Summer Auerbach is vice president of operations at Rainbow Blossom. This column runs the last Wednesday of each month.