Farmer’s markets are very popular right now. But they may not be as healthy, cheap, and fresh as you think they are—or at least, this is what a recent study of farmer’s markets in the Bronx seems to indicate:

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.” … 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.

Let’s consider the study’s main findings one by one.

“FMs were open substantially fewer months, days, and hours than stores.”

This only makes sense. Farmer’s markets are usually only open on weekends, in the mornings. Farmers aren’t full-time grocers: they have a job to maintain during the week. Although some FMs operate year-round (there are several in the NOVA and D.C. region that do), others will understandably close up shop for the winter months, due to a decrease in business.

“FMs offered 26.4 fewer fresh produce items on average than stores.”

There could be a variety of reasons for this—but the first and most obvious reason would be that most farmer’s markets are smaller and feature less vendors than your average grocery store. You can’t compare a farmer’s market, even a large one, to the produce aisle in Wegman’s or Whole Foods. One has goods from all over the country; the other is sharing produce from a relatively limited share of producers.

Also, it’s worth noting that the types of produce offered at a FM are (or, at least, should) feature less variety than those you would find at an average grocery store—because, at least in theory, farmer’s markets are supposed to feature local produce. They shouldn’t be selling tomatoes year-round. (If they do, you might want to ask the farmer some questions about how he grows them.)

“FM produce items were more frequently local and organic, but often tended towards less-common/more-exotic and heirloom varieties.”

First, who defines what’s “exotic”? Kohlrabi? Huckleberries? Because depending on where you live in the U.S., these items may actually be more local and seasonal than asparagus. The word “exotic” could be applied to a lot of different fruits and vegetables that Americans have grown unaccustomed to cooking or buying—celeriac and parsnips, for instance. But just because they’re unknown doesn’t mean they’re bad: indeed, that’s one of the reasons people like farmer’s markets. It offers them an opportunity to learn more about what produce is local, and—if they ask their farmer—to learn how to cook those items.

Also, a note about “heirloom” varieties: “heirloom” is defined as “denoting a traditional variety of plant or breed of animal that is not associated with large-scale commercial agriculture,” “something of special value handed on from one generation to another,” or “a horticultural variety that has survived for several generations usually due to the efforts of private individuals.” Heirloom tomatoes are perhaps the tastiest tomatoes you can eat. They’re colorful, distinct, and individual. I can’t understand why the makers of this study give this feature of FMs such a negative connotation—if anything, this is one of the markets’ greatest strengths: they keep the heirloom varieties alive, and thus prevent the further consolidation of various horticultural varieties into one giant monoculture.

“FMs were more expensive on average (p values <0.001 for pairwise comparisons to stores)—even for more-commonplace and ‘conventional’ produce—especially when discounts or sales prices were considered.”

This is a completely subjective distinction,and it’s worth noting that the study here is only measuring FMs in the Bronx. According to a study of Vermont farmer’s markets conducted in 2011, FMs’ conventional produce was on average the same price as grocery store produce, while their organic produce was actually cheaper. I’m pretty sure that the produce offered at the farmer’s market down the road from my house, in a low-to-middle income area of rural Idaho, was much cheaper than the produce you’d buy on Saturdays in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, in one of the nation’s “super zip” areas.

In an article about FMs for the Huffington Post, farmer and author Forrest Pritchard cites this 2013 study by The Project for Public Spaces, which states that “60 percent of farmers’ market shoppers in low-income areas of the country feel that their local markets offered better prices than supermarkets, and only 17 percent of shoppers cited ‘high prices’ as a deterrent to shopping locally.”

I emailed Pritchard, and asked for his input on the study. He agreed: “It’s the Bronx, and not Des Moines… or Old Town [Alexandria], and not Leesburg.” When it comes to FM pricing, place matters.

“Fully, 32.8% of what FMs offered was not fresh produce at all but refined or processed products (e.g., jams, pies, cakes, cookies, donuts, juice drinks).”

Farmer’s markets also often feature local carpenters, painters, florists, craftsmen, etc. Once again, much of this depends on the area where you’re shopping: that Idaho farmer’s market I mentioned rarely sold anything besides produce. But urban farmer’s markets are often selling a whole experience, and want to attract weekend shoppers with fresh muffins and hot coffee, as well as with tomatoes and peaches. Yet, proportionally speaking, 67.2 percent of the items offered at a Bronx FM are still fresh produce.

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Here’s the thing. Farmer’s markets aren’t perfect. You may visit a market that seems overpriced. You may run into a few vendors that seem fishy—Pritchard notes in his HuffPo piece that “just because you shop at a farmers’ market, it doesn’t guarantee that the food is local, or raised organically. While many markets insist on ‘producer only’ policies (i.e., the food must be grown by the farmers themselves, with distance limits to market), this isn’t always the rule.” Which is why he tells people, “Get to know your farmers at the market, and ask lots of questions.” The FM requires buyers to be active and knowledgeable consumers—which is why some people love it, and why others (understandably) don’t think they have time for it.

There’s no reason the FM’s addition to a neighborhood should automatically equal a “net nutritional plus,” as the Pacific Standard puts it. It all depends on what you buy—just like shopping at any other grocery store, be it Whole Foods or Target. It all comes down to personal choices, and the decision to be a discerning, knowledgeable buyer. What the FM does offer that supermarkets cannot, is that direct farmer-to-consumer connection—the opportunity to establish both accountability and community at the very source.

*Update*

Christine Lucaciu is co-founder of a farmer’s market meal-plan system called Huckle & Goose. She shared some additional thoughts via email, which I’m sharing below (with permission):

This article discusses the struggle of getting someone from the Bronx to eat healthfully—it requires changing their whole life. Generally, Bronx residents are more likely to eat unhealthy, even when they do use vegetables. One of the gripes is that fresh healthy produce is not available, but Jacobs’ article argues that when it is available, it doesn’t promote a healthy lifestyle (but how can this be proven from a Bronx case study, which is not a good indicator of markets as a whole?). Farmers need to bring the baked goods to meet the demand, make a living, and survive, while still trying to change eating habits and promote healthy lifestyles. It’s just human nature to go with what we know. And the root of the problem is not exotic produce, it’s simply the consumer not knowing what to do with it.

Farmers we work with tell us all the time how superior in flavor and quality heirloom varieties are. Just last week I bought a bunch of the most tasty greens I’ve ever had… claytonia. It was grown just 50 miles from DC and cost just about the same as a tasteless bag of mixed spring greens at the store… that were flown in from California. The farmers that try to fight our lacking demand, work really hard to bring the very best supply to markets but we, as shoppers, avoid eye contact or view that produce as elitist or exotic simply because it’s unfamiliar to us. We ask why unique and nutritious foods grown with care and close to home are so expensive instead of asking why something truly exotic—a tomato in the dead of winter or a pineapple from Hawaii, sitting in a New York grocery store—is so cheap.

To answer your other question too, we have found that even the Manhattan market is more expensive for Anca [Christine’s sister-in-law] than the one I go to here in DC. I also think this is because of different customer bases and their expectations, but I believe it costs more to secure a stand in urban areas too.