Farmers markets are one of the best places to get fresh, high quality local food. Here are some tips for making the most of your farmers’ market shopping experience:
- Skip the pricey stuff. It’s wonderful that local farmers figure out how to grow ginger and lemongrass—tropical plants—in Northwest soil, but their prices reflect the difficulty of their efforts. You’ll find plenty of cabbage, beets, and turnips for more affordable prices, and they’ll probably be some of the tastiest cabbage, beets, and turnips you’ve ever had.
- Use meat sparingly. I’m not asking you to avoid it altogether, unless you want to. There’s a reason meat is celebrated in dishes all over the world: it tastes good and makes us feel like we’re treating ourselves well. But you really don’t need much meat to make your meal tasty and special. Soups and stews, especially, stretch the meat you use while making the most of its flavor. Stuffed vegetables, with fillings made from meat and grains, are another great option.
- Make the most of what you buy. Use bones—and vegetable ends and peels—to make stock. Trim as little as possible, and experiment with parts of vegetables that often end up in the compost bin. Did you know that beet greens are essentially the same as chard?
- Cook from scratch, and keep it simple. Many of the pricier items at farmers’ markets are value-added, or processed in some way by the people who sell them. Try making your own pasta sauce, or even your own jam!
Are farmers markets really more expensive than grocery stores?
In a 2009 interview with 60 Minutes, local foods icon Alice Waters commented that people with limited means could better afford to pay farmers’ market prices if they just held off on buying their second pair of Nikes. The comment understandably drew considerable criticism: not everyone on a limited budget spends their scarce resources on frivolous status symbols or fashion statements. But Waters did make a valid point: no matter how little money we have, we still make choices that reflect our values.
Surveys conducted by farmers’ market organizations consistently name price as one of the biggest obstacles to market shopping. (The other major deterrent is usually parking.) Yet evidence is mixed as to whether farmers’ markets really are more expensive than conventional grocery stores. A 2010 and recent 2017 study by students at Seattle University actually found that, for produce of comparable quality, market prices were usually lower than prices at stores such as QFC and Safeway.
Still, the perception of farmers’ market shopping as a luxury persists, perhaps precisely because the produce available at markets tends to be of high quality. Local foods advocates insist that it’s worth paying higher prices for healthier produce grown in healthier soil. They argue that money spent on better quality food pays off down the line in lower medical bills, and they point to the multiplier effect of shopping locally: dollars spent close to home build wealth in our own communities rather than enriching shareholders of distant companies.
The role of celebrity…
There’s another reason why farmers’ market food has the reputation of being pricey: the modern local foods movement was spearheaded by celebrity chefs and high end restaurateurs charging more for a meal than many of us typically earn in a day. Places like Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Dan Barber’s Blue Hill in New York City, and our very own Herbfarm in Woodinville provide magnificent meals and support families of farmers. But the attention and kudos that these restaurants receive foster a perception that food grown with care close to home is restrictively expensive.
There is an irony to this situation: hundreds of years ago, when transporting food around the globe took months and cost lives, imported food was available only to the rich and peasants settled for the types of fruits, vegetables, and rustic breads that we find today on the tables of area farmers’ markets. In fact, during the Middle Ages, when sugar was imported, rare, and expensive, the royalty’s rotten teeth were envied by their poorer subjects.
…and a humble antidote
Back in 2011 I started a series of dinners aimed at spreading a different image of local, sustainable food, showing that it can be affordable, accessible, and relatively easy to prepare. I called the project the Humble Feast, to contrast it with the upscale galas that are typically staged to raise awareness and funds for local, small-scale agriculture. At first I had a tough time marketing the idea: celebrity and grandeur captivate the imagination, but my idea showcased everyday food which, by its very nature, is not particularly glamorous.
The Humble Feast has finally found its footing in a dining room adjacent to Patty Pan Cooperative’s commercial kitchen up in Shoreline. Patty Pan is a farmers’ market concession business that I founded back in 1997, and transformed into a worker-owned cooperative early in 2013. The Shoreline neighborhood where we landed has welcomed us and turned out in force to eat our humble offerings because, after all, nothing builds community quite like food.
Devra Gartenstein founded Patty Pan Cooperative in 1997, and worked with a core group of committed employees to transform it into a worker-owned cooperative in 2013. She has published two cookbooks: The Accidental Vegan, and Local Bounty.