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The Downside of Farmers' Markets

A study of those in the Bronx finds higher prices and fewer varieties of produce than nearby stores.
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A market in Jackson, Mississippi. (Photo: NatalieMaynor/Flickr)

A market in Jackson, Mississippi. (Photo: NatalieMaynor/Flickr)

Everybody loves farmers' markets. The food is fresh, the atmosphere fun, the sense of community palpable.

But much like a cook washing his vegetables, a team of researchers has thrown cold water on the belief that these marketplaces encourage healthy eating, or save people money.

A study of every farmers' market in the Bronx finds they are basically boutiques, offering produce that is more exotic, and more expensive, than the grocery stores located nearby. What’s more, their merchandise includes “many items not optimal for good health.”

Shopping at such places is a way of supporting local farmers, so long as you use a liberal definition of the term "local."

“There seems to be much enthusiasm for using farmer’s markets to improve food environments in communities challenged by (limited access to healthy foods),” writes a research team led by Sean Lucan of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “It is hard for us to share this enthusiasm.”

In the journal Appetite, Lucan and his colleagues describe a detailed study of precisely what was on sale at 26 farmers' markets and 44 nearby stores, all located within a half-mile walking distance of such a market. All were located in Bronx County, New York, and visited in the summer of 2011.

Among their findings:

  • Farmers' market produce items were more frequently local and organic, but often tended toward less-common/more exotic and heirloom varieties.
  • Farmers' markets offered 26.4 fewer fresh produce items, on average, than stores.
  • Compared to stores, items sold at farmers' markets were more expensive on average, “even for more commonplace and ‘conventional’ produce."
  • Fully 32.8 percent of what farmers' markets offered was not fresh produce at all, but refined or processed products such as jams, pies, cakes, and cookies.

Come for the heirloom tomatoes, stay for the pastries.

On the plus side, "produce at farmers' markets tended to be fresher than at nearby stores," the researchers write, "and a modestly higher proportion of farmer's market produce items were organic."

On that last point, however, it's worth keeping in mind that a 2012 meta-study found little evidence that organics are significantly healthier than conventional foods. For nutritionists, the issue isn't so much organic vs. conventional as it is eating fruits and vegetables vs. not eating them.

Another disadvantage, albeit an obvious one: "Farmers' markets were open overwhelmingly fewer months, days, and hours than nearby stores, and they offered less than half as many varieties of fresh-produce items, and fresh-produce categories, on average," the researchers write.

Shopping at such places is a way of supporting local farmers, so long as you use a liberal definition of the term "local." (In this case, they're not talking Brooklyn.) But the researchers note this, too, has its problematic aspects, particularly for urban areas with significant immigrant populations.

"It seems unlikely that Bronx farmers' markets exclusive offering of produce from the Northeastern U.S. could completely meet the desires of individuals, for example, hailing from equatorial countries and desiring the tropical fruits and vegetables of their native homelands," they write.

On an even more basic level, "it is also unclear if farmer's markets largely heirloom offerings can satisfy those looking for more commonly cultivated produce varieties," Lucan and his colleagues add.

Taking all of this into account, the researchers conclude that "it is not clear that farmers' markets contribute positively to an urban food environment." Sure, they're a great place to mingle. But as to whether they are a net nutritional plus for the neighborhood, the answer appears to be: Not so much.