I came to the farmers market for the food, but I stayed for the friends.
There are plenty of good reasons to spend your food dollars at farmers markets. I’ve been a food professional for most of my adult life—first writing about food and next doing non-profit food system work—so I’ve cycled through many reasons why I put farmers markets first when feeding my family.
I started shopping at the market because the food was discernibly better—fresher, tastier, prettier—than its supermarket counterparts. Later, my farmers market shopping was informed by a desire to reduce my food footprint and to foster a robust local food system. Both of those reasons still matter to me – the food does taste better and I try my best to live my values by eating locally and seasonally. But what keeps me going to the farmers market at least twice a week is that farmers markets are the one place that I can count on having positive interpersonal reactions with real live people.
Let’s be frank, in today’s world you can do just about everything without human contact: you can visit your doctor, shop for groceries, and renew your driver’s license from your couch. And it has become totally normal to walk through life engaging passionately with your handheld device while ignoring the people around you. When I shop the farmers market, I tend to leave these habits aside, smile at strangers, talk to friends, and get a chance to connect with people around me. According to the Farmers Market Coalition, when people shop at farmers markets they have 15 to 20 social interactions per visit versus just one or two when they shop at the grocery store, which reflects my own experience of farmers markets as highly social spaces. There’s a link between social interactions and health, meaning that farmers markets can have important health implications beyond the vitamins in the fresh vegetables. Farmers market enhance health writ large, and in my case, that includes mental health.
A history of good food
In the beginning, I was more a farmers market food eater than a shopper. I grew up in the East Village of Lower Manhattan back when it was not a particularly nice neighborhood. But it was affordable for my artist parents, and our rent-controlled apartment was around the corner from my school, so as a teenager I could sleep within an inch of being late and still get to class on time. It was also a few blocks away from the Union Square Green Market, where my mom would shop every week and bring home all kinds of treasures: mesclun salad mix decades before it became a supermarket staple, pheasant sausage she’d serve with grainy mustard, acorn squash she’d halve and roast with butter and maple syrup, fiddlehead ferns (which, to this day, I don’t fully “get”), and pastured eggs with brilliantly golden-orange yolks. We didn’t have much money, but as my mom explains it, good food was important and worth spending money on, and the place to find it was at the farmers market.
My college years were farmers market-free but I did become a pretty ambitious home cook, and when I came back to New York City I dove headfirst back into farmers markets, reveling in tree-ripened peaches, gnarly heirloom tomatoes, sweet-and-tart concord grapes, and funky farmstead cheeses. When I moved to Minneapolis, my husband and I would drive to the St. Paul Farmers Market, a sprawling producer-only market where everything sold is either grown by or made by the person selling it, every weekend.
From food to friendship
The shorter growing season of the Upper Midwest meant a different product line up than what I was used to back East. I spent my first Minnesotan summer waiting for peach season until I finally asked a farmer selling apples when to expect the stone fruit. He told me that it doesn’t grow in that region. No bother, there was plenty to discover, including the best corn I’ve ever eaten in my life, almost a fruit in its juicy sweetness, ground cherries with startling tropical notes, pastured Berkshire pork, unhomogenized cream line milk, heirloom melons, and new-to-me Asian vegetables grown by Hmong farmers—Thai eggplants, bitter melons, long beans, and Vietnamese coriander. It was at the St. Paul Farmers Market that I started regularly talking with the people I was buying food from. Part of this was work—at the time I was a freelance food writer so I was always looking for a story—but it evolved over time into second nature to chat with farmers and, after a while, it felt a little rude not to.
We moved to DC about a decade ago, and I quickly found my neighborhood market. I soon starting working at a nonprofit that ran a large network of farmers markets, a job that required me to visit up to five markets a week and get to know growers, makers, and shoppers in a new way. Twelve years later, I’m still working with farmers markets, making the world safe for vegetables and the people who grow them, and my motivations for visiting markets is now as much about checking in on farmers and makers as it is about getting great food, asking when a particular crop is coming in or is on it’s way out, how the market season is treating them, and what’s happening with their families. I also run into friends and neighbors, chat with strangers, and learn new ways to cook familiar foods.
It seems possible to get everything delivered now, including local fresh foods. But there’s more to farmers markets than food. When you’re planning your food shopping, try working a trip to the farmers market into the schedule. And, just as importantly, think about leaving your phone at home. Say hello to the person selling the food. Ask the customer next to you picking up that flat of berries what they have planned for them. If you see somebody puzzling over kohlrabi, tell them your favorite way to eat it. You just may make a friend. Plus, that’s how communities are built, one small interaction at a time.
*Juliet Glass lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and two sons. She is the external relations director for the Maryland Farmers Market Association, a nonprofit that cultivates community and fights hunger one farmers market at a time.