Some local food enthusiasts have called September "the best food month." All of the summer's produce—tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, and sweet corn—is still available locally, and the fall vegetables, like squash and parsnips, are coming ready too. If you are not accustomed to shopping at the farmer's market, it is a great time to check it out. What you'll find there—in addition to the festival atmosphere, friendly neighbors, live music, and delicious ready-made ethnic foods—are conditions that make it easier to eat healthfully.
As you enter the market you will notice the beauty of all of the local vegetables. The displays are gorgeous. Most of the vegetables were harvested either the day before or the morning of the market. Their colors are vibrant. They are still wet from being washed. The farmers take great pride in their yields and show them off in beautiful baskets and crates. Often they grow flowers and offer them for sale alongside the vegetables or berries.
Not only do the displays make the produce more appetizing, the produce actually tastes better. If you've ever eaten a blueberry off of a bush, you know this to be true. Any reduction in the time from the ground to your mouth is a plus, and local markets cut drastically the amount of time that produce spends in transit. (Most commercially available tomatoes are green, not red, when they are loaded on the truck headed to the grocery store.) What you may not know is that fresh food at its perfect ripeness also has more nutrients accessible for you to absorb. And as good as super fresh ripe produce tastes, you will want to eat plenty, making it easy to get your daily recommended servings of fruits and vegetables.
Freshness isn't the only benefit of farmers' market produce. Believe it or not, some vegetables—such as carrots and beets —grow just as well in poor soil but taste better when they are grown in richer soils. Small growers often use more sustainable practices and natural fertility that actually make the vegetables taste better. So if you don't like the grocery store varieties of some vegetables, try shopping for the same vegetables at the farmers' market. You might find you like them better.
Finally, local farmers often have more unusual vegetables to try. With more options, you might find a new favorite. Kholrabi, for instance, tastes like a combination between an apple and a potato. It is tasty raw and cooked, and it has a good nutritional profile, including plenty of fiber and 16 percent of your daily recommended allotment of vitamin C. Plus it stores well, so it is available almost all year from some growers.
Some heirloom tomatoes, available only at farmers' markets, have surprisingly fruit-like flavor profiles. Close your eyes while eating a Striped German tomato, for instance, and you may perceive the creamy sweetness of a cantaloupe.
Parsnips are another late-season farmers' market all-star. They look like white carrots and can be chopped, coated in olive oil and herbs, with other vegetables or on their own, and roasted at 350 degrees for 40 minutes for a sweet, nutritious, and delicious side dish.
If you don't know how to prepare a vegetable, just ask the farmer. Many are expert home cooks and happy to share the most delicious ways to eat their produce.
"But, but, but...Farmers' market vegetables are way more expensive," you say. Sometimes this can be true. Farming on a small scale locally, using local labor, can make local produce more expensive than similar products grown on mechanized farms with migrant workers. However, farmers’ market produce can be affordable. There are many ways to make these fruits and vegetables fit into anyone’s budget.
Farmers' markets offer many programs to make them more affordable for families that receive food assistance benefits. Ask at the farmers’ market information booth about how to use 3SquaresVT, the SNAP benefit program, and Farm to Family Coupons, all of which make local food more affordable. When you buy farmers' market produce, you will find that the enjoyment, inspiration, freshness, and taste are worth the expense.
Rachel Rodney, MS, RD, CDE, is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Southwestern Vermont Health Care. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. “Health Matters” is a column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care. For more columns like this one, visit svhealthcare.org/wellnessconnection.