Memorial Day weekend marks the start of summer – and farmers markets across the country are gearing up for high season. According to the USDA National Farmers Market Directory, the number of farmers markets has exploded — from 1,755 in 1994, to more than 5,200 last year. That’s a whopping 300 percent increase since the directory was first published 15 years ago. Every year since, the USDA has been conducting what amounts to an annual farmers market “census” — asking market managers for information and giving policy wonks and consumers alike a window into the burgeoning farmers market movement.
As Rayne Pegg, the Administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service — or AMS — the USDA agency that maintains the directory, recently explained in an open letter to market managers, it’s “a snapshot of what is happening at farmers markets, and where, and demonstrates how the industry is growing and expanding… It includes the markets locations, size, operations schedules and other valuable information.”
The call was put out in April for this year’s directory. The AMS has already gotten thousands of responses — and it’s been so popular it recently extended the original May 14th deadline to June 4th. Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, this is the first year the survey is being conducted electronically, and social media — notably Twitter – has played a large role in getting the word out — and responses back in.
So why is the Directory such an important tool? First off, consumers can use it to find out where their local farmers markets are. The USDA also compiles the information into the user friendly Food Environment Atlas – which literally maps healthy food sources — and was unveiled as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to fight childhood obesity this past February.
But perhaps more importantly — the directory is painting a picture of accessibility — especially in terms of which markets take SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps) and are involved in other federal assistance programs such as WIC (the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) or SFMP (the Farmers Market Nutrition Program for senior citizens).
Over 1,000 farmers markets now take food stamps, and those numbers are growing all the time. Farmers markets traditionally have taken them, but when the SNAP program switched over from paper vouchers to EBT (electronic bank transfer) cards a few years back — markets were faced with a problem — how to get electricity and phone lines, or even wifi, in place so that the benefits could be processed. Those bumps on the road are being smoothed out now, as the numbers are showing. In addition, and great news all on its own, is that Wholesome Wave, a non-profit focused on increasing access to wholesome foods, has been working with farmers markets to get more EBT’s up and running. Wholesome Wave has also upped the ante with its Double Value Coupon Program, which doubles the value of food stamp purchases. They’ve expanded into about 100 markets to date, up from just 12 when they started the program two years ago.
The National Farmers Market Directory is also working to grow local economies — and has been a cornerstone of the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, dedicated to putting a face on food producers and, as Pegg wrote in his letter “building stronger local and regional food systems and demonstrating their economic importance in US farm economy.”
The official directory is scheduled to be released the first week of August, in conjunction with National Farmers Market Week, but here’s what you as a consumer can do before June 4th: tell your farmers market manager to log on to the USDA survey and fill out the “census” — individual farmers can’t fill it out – it has to be the market manager. The more markets are counted, the clearer the picture, better the data, and the more accessible farmers markets become to people everywhere — especially those who may have thought they could never afford to shop at one. Healthy, fresh, local food should be an option for everyone, regardless of geography or income bracket. Making fresh local food available and supporting local economies is a win-win situation for all.
photo credit: freefoto.com