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Farmers Markets: Carnivals of fresh fruits, vegetables

Published: Saturday, June 29, 2013 4:59 a.m. CDT

URBANA, Ill. - Farmers markets are an excellent way to bring colorful and nutritious fruits and vegetables to your table.

“It’s exciting to see the vendors who have picked and transported produce from their fields early the same morning. It’s a carnival of fresh fruits and vegetables,” University of Illinois Extension nutrition and wellness educator Margaret Cover said.

“As you meander along the stands looking for the best deals, the best produce, or maybe the unusual item, you ponder how to use the produce.”

What is the definition of a farmers market? It is an outlet for local farmers to gather at defined locations to sell their fresh, local produce to the community directly. Farmers markets are found in all 50 states with many of them being seasonal rather than year-round. It is estimated that more than one million people visit farmers markets each week.

According to USDA, there are more than 7,800 farmers markets in the United States. Illinois ranks fifth in the number of farmers markets with 300 locations. These numbers are projected to increase in 2013. Since 1994, the number of farmers markets in the USDA directory has quadrupled.

“Why buy fresh fruits and vegetables at a farmers market instead of a local grocer? Most of the fruits and vegetables you buy at the grocery store are picked early, before they are ripe and ready, and transported as much as 2,000 miles before reaching your local grocer,” she said.

The produce you find at farmers markets is usually ripened on the plant right before the market and transported less than 50 miles. This makes the produce not only fresher but keeps it local. By purchasing your produce at farmers markets, you are boosting local economy by keeping money in the community and supporting the smaller, family owned farms, she added.

Although USDA MyPlate guidelines recommend that half of our meals consist of fruits and vegetables, only 10 percent of Americans actually get the daily recommended amount of these foods. A healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables may help protect you and your family from chronic diseases, including some cancers, heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke.

“By choosing nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, you are getting a good source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals. Remember, most fruits and vegetables are naturally low in fat and calories,” Cover said.

Another advantage of farmers markets is that you can sometimes find unusual produce such as white peaches, white asparagus, baby broccoli, squash blossoms, kohlrabi, parsnips, and garlic scapes, as well as heirloom tomatoes and other specialty items.

To find a farmers market in your part of the state, visit http://www.illinoisfarmdirect.org/market_search.html.

If you have questions regarding local produce, farmers markets, or nutrition, please contact your local U of I Extension office.

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