Written by Sara Peach for UNC Health Care
CHAPEL HILL – For picky eaters, broccoli skeptics and the spinach-averse, a farmers markets might be the best place to discover a new approach to a healthy diet.
In March and April, farmers markets will get into full swing across the state, selling asparagus, lettuce, kale, collard greens, rhubarb and other fresh fruits and veggies.
This locally grown produce may contain more vital nutrients than fruits and vegetables shipped over long distances, said Pat Becker, lead pediatric dietitian at UNC Health Care.
“Vitamins are not stable for an extended period of time,” Becker said. “They're affected by light and heat. So the shorter the journey, the higher the vitamin content.”
Most fruits and vegetables grown in the United States travel at least 1,500 miles to reach consumers, according to Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Meanwhile, many commercial growers select varieties bred for durability in transport rather than for taste or nutrition value.
In contrast, produce available at farmers markets is often picked the day before sale, and it is transported over short distances, Becker said. At least 5,200 farmers markets operate in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Many of them require sellers to live within a fixed distance from the market, such as 200 miles.
Elizabeth Watt, a registered dietitian at the UNC Wellness Center at Meadowmont, said the research on the nutritional advantages of local food over conventional is mixed.
“Nutritionally, it's going to be a minimal difference,” she said. The bottom line, she said, is that people should eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, regardless of origin.
But nutrition experts agree that farmers markets hold one clear advantage: Fresh food simply tastes good.
“The main thing that you're getting with local food is taste, and that's going to make you want to eat your veggies more,” said Betsy Thomas, administrative coordinator of nutrition and food service at UNC Health Care.
With taste in mind, two years ago, Thomas helped start a small farmers market in the lobby of the North Carolina Children's Hospital. The market offers seasonal produce and locally produced bread, scones, jam and honey. It runs from May through October on Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. This year, Thomas expects the market to open May 5 with a mouth-watering attraction.
“We're going to have strawberries,” she said.
If You Go
- Bring cash in small denominations. Most farmers will have enough change to break $20, but they'll have trouble with a $100 bill.
- Don't be afraid to experiment with a new vegetable. Most farmers can suggest recipes and will even let you sample the produce before you buy. “You can't do that in a grocery store,” Watt said.
- Ask the farmers questions: Did you grow the produce or did you purchase it from a wholesaler? How should I cook it? “They're more than happy to talk to you about it,” Becker said.
- Many small farmers who use organic practices can not afford to obtain organic certification. If pesticides and herbicides concern you, ask the farmer whether he or she uses chemicals.
- Maintain an open mind about the occasional bug. Becker said she once discovered a worm on an ear of corn she was about to buy at a market. She took it as a reassuring indication that the farmer hadn't used pesticides on his crop. “If you really want natural stuff, those things have to be considered and tolerated,” she said.
- If attending a farmers market doesn't fit your schedule, consider joining a community-supported agriculture group. You will pay a lump sum at the beginning of the season. In return, the farm will deliver a box of fresh food once a week to a central location for you to pick up. To find a CSA or a farmers market near you, visit: http://www.localharvest.org