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Nutrition a main ingredient of Oregon farmers' markets

Special programs at farmers' markets match nutritious food with people in need

Nearly nine out of ten American consumers surveyed say nutrition is very important to them personally while more than seven out of ten say they are very careful to select foods that achieve a healthy diet. What a great time for farmers' markets to open throughout Oregon this spring. Once again, farmers' markets will offer seasonal food that is fresh, locally-grown, and nutritious. By the time a greater array of fresh fruits and vegetables are available, special nutrition programs will once again be underway to help bring Oregonians in need together with healthy food at farmers' markets.

"If you walk into any farmers' market, it’s a cornucopia of nutrition," says Laura Barton, trade manager with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. "Farmers' markets offer fresh fruits and vegetables just packed full of nutrients. Other farm direct products that offer lots of nutritional value include such items as eggs and cheese. You can feel good about the products you buy at farmers' markets."

A survey conducted by the American Dietetic Association in 2011 uncovered some interesting nutrition trends that indicate consumers strongly favor purchasing healthy foods while shopping. The survey shows 89 percent of the respondents strongly believe diet and nutrition are very important while 76 percent indicate they are very careful to select foods that achieve balanced nutrition. That same survey shows that nearly half of the respondents have increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables over the past five years with berries accounting for the biggest increase.

Cost remains a key factor in food choice decisions, but assistance is once again available to help economically disadvantaged individuals and families access fresh, local foods at farmers’ markets and farmstands in 2013.

Over the next several weeks, most of Oregon's nearly 120 farmers' markets will be open. Many of those markets will begin offering fresh fruits and vegetables to low income, nutritionally-needy families and elderly citizens as part of the Oregon Farm Direct Nutrition Program (FDNP) administered by the state. ODA specifically works with the vendors– the growers themselves– to ensure their participation in the program, which brings more than a million dollars into the hands of Oregon farmers each year.

"Many farmers are delighted to participate in the program because it makes them feel really good that these consumers are able to buy their product and get much needed nutrition," says Barton.

The program kicks in starting June 1. FDNP funds in the form of four-dollar checks will be distributed to low-income, nutritionally at-risk pregnant women and young children enrolled in the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) Program as well as eligible low-income seniors. These checks can be used from June 1 through October 31, 2013 specifically to purchase locally produced fresh fruits and vegetables directly from authorized producers at farm stands and farmers' markets.

In addition, a separate program provides another opportunity for farmers and WIC families. All women and children enrolled in the Oregon WIC Program can receive additional vouchers on a monthly basis to purchase fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables year round from authorized farmers at farm stands and farmers’ markets. It’s called the Oregon WIC Fruit and Veggie Voucher program and also allows recipients to buy produce at WIC-authorized grocery stores. Because the program operates all year, vendors at early opening and late season closing of farmers’ markets have a chance to sell even more produce items to WIC shoppers.

Since many low-income individuals don't normally shop at farmers' markets, the nutrition program has a side benefit of introducing new customers to the concept of buying direct from the farmer.

"Things picked that morning and put into a consumer's hands right away are going to maintain their nutrient profile as well as have great flavor," says Barton.

Farmers' markets remain a very special way to connect urban consumers with the rural farms where the product is grown. Consumers get a chance to see the faces of those producers and have conversations about the food they are about to purchase. The same kind of benefit exists for the producer.

"Farmers find it very special to see and hear the appreciation directly from the customers who buy their products at farmers’ markets," says Barton. "If they are selling products in another venue, they usually don't have that connection to the consumer."

Early season offerings by Oregon farmers’ markets include a variety of fresh greens, such as spinach, as well as winter root vegetables like carrots and parsnips. There are also non-food products such as flowers and bedding plants. Very soon, more great Oregon tastes will be available to consumers including fresh strawberries. Shoppers need to keep in mind that what is available in May and June won’t necessarily be there in August and September. That includes sweet cherries and many of the fresh berries. Likewise, many products coming on in late summer or fall are not currently available, including pears, watermelon, and fresh corn. One of the joys of shopping at a farmers’ market is that availability of product can change from week to week. In recent years, many growers have successfully extended growing seasons to offer fresh produce over a longer period of time.

Farmers' markets in Oregon are getting increased attention by more than just the general public.

“Markets are now a conduit for chefs, hospitals, and schools looking for local products they can purchase directly," says Barton. "There are many initiatives to connect schools with vendors at farmers' markets. Farmers can drop off product at schools on the way to the market or on the way back."

Whoever the customer, it is obvious there is a hunger in Oregon for really fresh food and the ability to see where that food comes from. Farmers' markets are filling that need.

Oregon’s farmers’ markets information

Media contact:  Laura Barton at (503) 872-6600.

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