With additional reporting by Ana Beatriz and Adania Navarro.
I love the farmers' markets in Los Angeles, even though I can't go as often as I would like. And it's not for a lack of options. In Los Angeles County, there are more than 80 certified farmers' markets. That means that an Angeleno theoretically could attend one every day of the week. And to think that this sprawling network--so extensive, in fact, that the LA Times saw fit to put together an interactive map to navigate it all--started out as a couple of produce stands just thirty years ago.
But, just what makes a certified market “certified"? An easy answer is that vendors who are classified in that category are selling products from their own farms. This also means that the farmers selling products are local, and that the food being sold is often brought to market as soon as it is ripe.
And, boy, is their produce ripe. When I do get the chance to walk around a farmers' market, I’m quickly taken over by the atmosphere. Moving with the bustling crowd of shoppers and fellow browsers, I relish the sight of luscious plums and grapes, beautiful red strawberries, fresh carrots, beans, peas, and other foods that overtake my senses. All this makes me think: “Why can’t supermarkets supply fresh food like this all the time?” To me, the supermarkets are still at a disadvantage when it comes to personality; many of the farmers' market vendors with whom I've had the pleasure of chatting up while making a small purchase are considerably down-to-earth, and it makes me want to shop at one of the markets every week.
Unfortunately, the prices at the market are often higher than what I'm willing to pay. For all its gloominess, at least the supermarket is somewhat affordable. Add to that list the stalled economy and growing job loss rate in California, and it makes actively choosing where to shop harder for those who, under better financial circumstances, would rather be spending their weekends at an outdoor market. As a result, both farmers and the buying public are suffering. The public misses a great opportunity to help their economy, the farmers, and themselves by eating healthier food. On top of that, the government provides subsidies not to local farmers, but to industrial farms who produce food on a large scale and sell it through middlemen. Economically speaking, that means that local farmers are forced to compete with wholesale markets by selling their produce well below market value.
We talked to a farmer who works at the farmers' market in downtown LA at Pershing Square about how the economy is affecting the business of growing food:
Talk like this worries me about the future of fresh food in the big city. Most of us are forced to get all of our food from the supermarket chains, that use marketing to convince us to buy more and more of their products. This could likely lead to disaster in the future with fewer farmers' markets, while the buying public would have to continue eating pesticide-covered foods that may lead to serious diseases down the road. With the number of farmers' markets and interest in organically-grown food increasing, conversation regarding a very serious topic has many consumers worried about their health: the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers in the organic growing process. While meats, vegetables, and grains that are labeled organic are supposed to be free of synthetic fertilizers and dangerous pesticides that can make farmers and consumers seriously ill if overused, there are a number of situations that require a non-green pesticide spray to be used. The amount of pesticides in organic foods, however, are lower than the amount from farms that mass produce crops for the market.
This doesn't mean that farmers' markets have the organic market all to themselves, however. Major food and supermarkets chains are taking on farmers in the organic market, in a major effort to muscle their much-smaller competitors out of the way. In the Midwest, Wal-Mart recently started having their own "Farmers' Market Day," even though no local farmers are even involved in the event. Furthermore, these foods that major supermarkets are calling "organic" may not be as organic as they appear; no one knows what kind of pesticides or fertilizers are being used in the organic growing areas. Even if these foods were indeed meant to be fully organic, commercial fertilizers and pesticides continue to stay in the soil for an extended period of time, meaning that the plants are exposed to excess chemicals that remain even after cleaning of the fruits and vegetables take place.
Still, for all my fear about the future of farmers' markets, I am thinking about what I can do here and now to make sure that they stick around as long as possible. My plan is to continue convincing my friends and family members to buy more organic fare and to budget their money when shopping. The benefits of healthy eating are well worth the slightly higher price, and, besides, I'd rather help my physical state by eating better than having to spend $30 on another medication that might give me unwanted side effects.
After my experiences of shopping organically, growing my own fruits and vegetables as a child, and visiting an organic farm, I am all for sustaining farmers' markets in cities and towns. Besides, once you've been grabbed by the smell of fresh collard greens, apples, and oranges, you might never want to leave that small piece of heaven on earth.