Back when Americans spent their Sunday afternoons joyriding through the countryside, a highlight of any trip was finding a farm stand where fresh sweet corn, juicy tomatoes and baskets of berries could be had for a few bucks.
Those days ended with high gas prices, but in the past 25 years Americans have discovered a worthy alternative. Farmers markets have proliferated, increasing from fewer than 2,000 in 1994 to more than 8,600 last year. The offerings have expanded, too. Not only do most markets offer an array of field-fresh fruits and vegetables, but many also sell dairy and meat products, flowers and even crafts.
The popularity of farmers markets reflects Americans’ increasing awareness of the benefits of eating healthful and locally sourced food. The produce available at farmers markets is freshly picked and bursting with antioxidants and phytonutrients. Eating 10 servings a day of colorful fruits and veggies is correlated with significant decreases in the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and premature death, according to a recent meta-analyst of 2 million people. Produce is also a surprisingly good source of water—and getting enough of that is a particular concern for the elderly.
The fruits and vegetables for sale at farmers markets are likely to be grown with fewer pesticides and an eye toward sustainability. Seventy five percent of farmers who sell their produce at farmers markets meet or surpass organic standards, according to a 2015 study. So how do you make the most of the nature’s bounty featured at your local outdoor market? Here are some tips:
* If you’re looking to save some money, ask whether the farmer will sell you seconds—so-called No. 2 produce that is perfectly tasty but not perfectly pretty.
* Another way to get a deal is to arrive shortly before the market closes. Farmers may prefer discounting their produce to bringing it home.
* Be flexible and realistic. You may not find everything you’re looking for, but you will find something delicious. Of course, if you’re looking for vine-ripened tomatoes in early June, you’re going to be disappointed.
* Don’t expect to negotiate prices. Farmers work hard to grow their produce and hit the road in the wee hours to bring it to market. Bear in mind that by shopping at the farmers market, you’re supporting local and regional farmers.
So now that you’re hungry, where can you find a farmers market and stock up? There are several in the area and three in Naperville, including Saturday mornings at the Fifth Street Station and 95th Street library, and Wednesdays from 3-7 p.m. at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
But even if you never cook—or shop for produce—there’s still a way to enjoy the freshest fruits of the season. Many restaurant chefs, including Monarch Landing’s Don Zajac—make a point of incorporating locally sourced food in their menu offerings. Another popular option is farm-to-table dinners—a more elaborate version of the Saturday morning farmers market, with working farms hosting patrons for occasional meals that feature their own produce, meat and dairy products.