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Farmers markets: Good for the body and the economy

Jim Miller is executive director of the Historic Valley Junction Foundation, which owns and operates the Valley Junction Farmers Market. Contact him at director@valleyjunction.com.

The farmers market in Historic Valley Junction begins Thursday, May 5, and runs through Sept. 29. Our welcome center office has already been getting inquiries about it from fans and visitors.

Over the past two decades, the way we shop for our food has shifted dramatically, with an ever-increasing emphasis on local, organic and clean food.

According to the USDA, there were approximately 2,863 U.S. farmers markets in the year 2000. Today that number is nearly 8,500 – and growing. Of this total, Iowa has approximately 250 farmers markets, with 40 located in the central Iowa region.

According to Eat Greater Des Moines, within our region (Polk, Dallas, Marion and Warren counties) you can find a farmers market Monday-Saturday. We have over 26 markets taking place on a weekly basis, all selling a variety of locally grown produce, plants and flowers, breads and baked goods, meats, dairy, and value-added products.

It is impossible not to acknowledge the amazing growth and expansion of the local food movement. Events are held from corner to corner of this agricultural state, from a small town square with 10 vendors to larger cities like Valley Junction in West Des Moines and our 80-100 vendors each week. We’ve been operating our market since the mid-1970s and our current format since 1988.

I won't speak for all 8,500 farmers markets in the country, but I will speak for the one in Valley Junction (and I think for a good share of those 8,500). Farmers markets are good for the body, soul, community and economy. Fill your body with Iowan-grown produce, home-baked bread and baked goods, Iowa-raised chops and ice cream from an Iowa dairy operation. Fill your soul with one-of-a-kind creations from Iowa artisans and flowers from Iowa gardens.

These community events are family-friendly, most are pet-friendly, and in the case of Valley Junction, we also offer the best music around with our Music in the Junction concert series and optional adult beverages.

More and more Iowans want fresh local food, and also want a relationship with the grower. The significance of income from farmers markets in the world of food retailing should not be ignored.

According to the Farmers Market Coalition:

  • Growers selling locally create 13 full-time jobs per $1 million in revenue earned. Those that do not sell locally create three jobs per $1 million earned.
  • For every $100 spent at a farmers market, $62 stays in the local economy, and $99 stays in the state.
  • Nearly $19 million in SNAP benefits (food stamps) was spent at farmers markets in 2014. That's fresh food for lower-income Americans and increased revenue for local farmers. Markets bring fresh food to neighborhoods that need it the most.
  • Proximity to farmers markets is associated with lower body mass index. Walk or ride your bicycle to your favorite farmers market.
  • USDA reports that produce prices are lower, on average, than grocery store prices.
  • Shoppers have more than three times as many social and informational encounters at farmers markets than they do at national chain supermarkets.
  • In Iowa, every dollar spent at farmers markets led to an additional 58 cents to $1.36 in sales at other nearby businesses. This is perhaps the strongest response to the question, “Does a farmers market really help Valley Junction (or any community)?” Yes!

Here’s my parting shot: Do your civic duty and support the community around you. Supporting your community and supporting your local farmers market is simply the right thing to do. Grab your canvas bag, and I’ll see you soon at the market.


Jim: while I get the angle of your column given the fact your foundation owns and operates the Valley Junction farmers market, several thoughts came to mind:
1) There are many places people can go to buy "local." Countless food items in grocery stores and served in restaurants throughout Iowa are grown locally. Pick up a jar of Hellmann's, for example, and the top-two ingredients (soybeans and eggs) are sourced from Iowa farms. Cool thing about living in Iowa is it's easy to buy local.
2) "Local," "organic" and "clean" does not necessarily mean "better" or "best." In fact, much of the language on food labels can't be defined, let alone proven to be safer or more nutritious than food not labeled "local," "organic" or "clean." Take organic, for example. When asked if organic food is more nutritional than food not labeled organic, the Mayo Clinic says no. Adds Mayo Clinic: "A recent study examined the past 50 years' worth of scientific articles about the nutrient content of organic and conventional foods. The researchers concluded that organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs are not significantly different in their nutrient content." Yet Mayo admits that food labeled "local," "organic" and "clean" command a premium price (often 50-100 percent more than the cost of food not featuring these labels) and strongly urge consumers not to curtail the amount they consume because they choose more expensive options. Which directly relates to...
3) While farmers' markets are nice places to visit, socialize and shop (I was raised on a small farm and frequently visit farmers markets including Des Moines and Beaverdale), it's a stretch to promote them as the best option for people who are food insecure. There are many venues to obtain fresh foods (food banks, church gardens, grocery stores, neighbors), many of which will help those who are food insecure and living on fixed incomes to make their food dollar go further. Experts don't tell people where to shop but to, most importantly, maximize the purchase and consumption of fruits, vegetables and proteins. I'm not aware of research that substantiates farmers markets as a place for those who are food insecure to stretch their food dollar.
4) "The USDA reports that produce prices are lower, on average, than grocery store prices?" Please share additional details about this report as the finding doesn't seem to match the eye test during my recent trip to the farmers market.
5) I consider voting and serving as a volunteer in Rotary or Kiwanis as a civic duty, not shopping at a farmers market.

I'm a fan of farmers markets and visit them frequently. I also know many farmers who grow and sell at farmers markets. However, some context is helpful in the role that farmers markets play as it relates to the important issues of food quality and insecurity.

Thank you.

Aaron Putze, Waukee

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