4 Tips on Shopping at the Farmer’s Market

It’s that wonderful, colorful, delicious time of year.  We’re excited!  We’ve got our cloth shopping bags in hand, sneakers, sun glasses and optimism.  We march on over to the local farmers market dreaming of the beautiful, colorful meals we intend to create.  Maybe even beautiful enough for a Pinterest hit or two?!   And then……. we’re soooo overwhelmed.  With all the options, all the “eat this, not that” out there, how does one know what do actually purchase, take home, and cook?  Furthermore, how to do you navigate the myriad of choices between organic, conventional, local products?  Which is best?

Here’s your friendly guide to what you should look for & questions to ask amongst all those colors and crowds!

1.   Organic vs. Local

This is a great debate, and depends on the item.  For example, here in New England we can’t grow organic apples without worms, which doesn’t work well for consumers.  Is it better to eat local, sprayed fruit, or get organic apples from the west coast at the supermarket?  As far as sprays go, organic is usually better but there are other concerns about bacterial pest control, as this NPR article illustrates.  Yet apples continue to be one of the highest sprayed items in the country.   In the meantime, apples from the other side of the country travel 3000 miles in trucks, thereby using plenty of natural resources to get to our table, and have varying levels of freshness.  Indeed, some apples can be kept up to 1 year in storage facilities.

There’s also the concern of flavor- in my mind, not much compares to the variety and local flavor of the New England apple varieties that come out throughout the fall.  For me, I’m willing to wash well and take on a bit of spray for some sweet, seasonal macoun apples.   I make up for it by buying nearly everything else organic, and never buying apples out of season.  Life is about balance after all, as long as your conscious of your choices.

This varies from item to item.   When deciding which fruit/vegetable you’ll stick to organics on, I suggest this list from the Environmental Working Group, which lists the items they suggest only organic on, and which conventional items are best.

2.  Eggs

Eggs can be confusing.  There’s lots of advertising for “vegetarian fed!” eggs out there, as if it’s something to aspire to.  The problem with that is that chickens aren’t naturally vegetarians.  Rather, they eat grubs and bugs from the ground, turning what humans in many cultures would consider inedible beings into a high-nutrient super-food.  Cool, eh?

I always suggest finding high quality eggs that have been raised on pasture.   A good question to ask your farmer is “how long to the chickens roam outside?  In a pen outdoors is fine, as long as they have access to dirt and grubs.

If you must buy grain-fed chicken, always presume that they’re fed corn and soy, as they always are.  If you are sensitive to soy, as many people are, be careful.  I’d always purchase organic eggs, as this ensures the corn and soy your eggs grew on were not GMO, which has a whole host of other problems.

3. Meat: chicken & beef

These guidelines follow nearly the same ones as eggs.  None of the domesticated animals we consume ever naturally survived on grain, certainly not GMO grain.    Beef should be grass-fed and finished, chicken should have significant outdoor access.  The vendor’s at the farmer’s market should absolutely have the answers to these questions, and if they don’t then simply move on to the next stall.

4.  Breads, baked goods

Are bakers farmers?  Maybe not, but I know many of us are thrilled to have fresh boules in our bag when we get home, not to mention some sugary treats we couldn’t resist.  We’ll discuss the two main ingredients in bread and sweets, so you can make your decisions.

Wheat: While GMO wheat is not yet on the market in the US, it’s coming.   There is also some debate about how much of wheat has been contaminated with GMO varieties.  Of concern is also conventional wheat, which is also heavily sprayed with fungicides and insecticides.  For that reason, I suggest organic bread products, which are widely available.

Sugar:   In the US today, 50-60% of sugar comes from GMO sugar beets.  So it’s fairly safe to assume that unless you’re cookie is organic, it’s got plenty of GMO’s in it.   The good news is that organic sugar is widely available, from Costco to Whole Foods and ordering online, you can likely find it near you for your home-baked goods.

For more information on breads, and how to select the healthiest kinds see this post:

Now, that you’re armed with information and questions for your farmer, go shop, eat & enjoy!


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