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In a reversal, Americans now want to 'eat local'

Article from DNA

Bangalore: The farmers market is two blocks from her house, but Susy Gutierrez never stopped by. She was one of the “elusive” ones.

But on a recent Saturday morning, the mother of two from the run-down First Ward in Columbia finally walked that short distance.

Fresh local food, she found, is not only easily accessible but also affordable. “I never came here; I don’t know why,” said Gutierrez, a Mexican-American single parent.

Gutierrez is the latest convert to the ‘fresh and local’ — a movement that is catching up with Americans and bringing back farmers markets in their modern avatar.

“It’s catching on,” said Casey Corbin, executive director of the non-profit group Sustainable Farms & Communities, which organises events like Neighbor Appreciation Day, to attract the market’s low-income neighbors, predominantly African American and Hispanic, who do not shop here.

It’s ironical that at a time when mega retails stores are taking over from the local sabji-walla in urban India, a reversal of sorts is under way in the US.

“We’ve come full circle,” said Marty Mesh of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group. “It will take us a painfully long time to reinvigorate our local food systems like farmers markets that we destroyed in the last 30 years to our peril.”

There are signs that a beginning has been made, because the number of farmers markets has almost trebled in the past 15 years (see chart). The US Department of Agriculture has posted a national directory of farmers markets for the benefit of consumers, and also provides financial assistance to them.

“More and more consumers are discovering the wide array of fresh, locally grown produce available at farmers markets,” said USDA’s agriculture market survey administrator Lloyd Day.

“Another reason for their popularity,” he said, “is food buyers like the opportunity to interact with the producers.”It also gives farmers an opportunity to tap consumer markets directly with immediate returns, said Nancy Roe, a 61-year-old farm operator in South Florida.

“The trend appears to be set for the long term,” said Erin Barnett, director of the non-profit Local Harvest. Consumers are discovering the importance of eating local fresh produce that is better in quality and taste than what you get in the stores, and so they are even ready to pay a higher price, said Barnett. The “fast food nation” has woken up to the disaster of obesity wrought by processed food.

“Nutrition is one of the central issues in promoting wellness in America,” said Laura Schopp, director of T E Atkins University of Missouri Wellness Program. “We have to relearn some of the things that our mothers and grandmothers did in their times,” she added.

For varied reasons, a majority of Americans have been buying their food from big retail outlets. Most of that food comes from farms and countries miles away — through months of supply chains and handling.

Convenience and cost are the main draws of the retail chains, especially for low income groups. But now the farmers markets are trying to address such barriers.

Corbin’s non-profit group in Columbia is working on a grant with which the farmers market could double the value of food stamps — a federal-government assistance program for the poor and jobless.

“Let’s say you come to the market with $20 worth of food stamps,” said Corbin. “We’ll double its value to $40 with the help of those grants to address the cost issue.” The market gives such customers token wooden dollars to shop with so that there’s no stigma attached.

In India, farmers markets hardly get any direct assistance. There has been no attempt to develop systems to make local mandis more competitive against retail chains.

“Buying local is a solution to economic issues of our times — it encourages and benefits the local economy,” said Jesca Byndom, radio artiste in Columbia. Jesca and her husband Tyree Byndom of the Katalyzt’s Hip Hop Group perform live at the local market to entertain shoppers.

Gutierrez was pleased she came to the market with her two boys, Paul and Keshawn, who learned from the farmers how and where their food is grown.

“I’ll recommend shopping here to my neighbors now,” Gutierrez said, as she moved from one pavilion to other. She’s the ‘eat-local’ movement’s new campaigner.

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