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Farm Fresh Close to Home

Farmers' markets can represent gateways to healthier living for customers.

En español | Martha Gomez likes to have a salad with dinner and, she says, it usually tastes better when its ingredients come from her local farmers' market. "The lettuce is hardier, the carrots are sweeter, the cucumbers are juicier," says the Brownsville, Texas, banker, who remembers the mercados of her native Colombia.

But Gomez, 53, doesn't visit the market solely for the flavorful food. She likes supporting local growers, trading cooking tips, and socializing. "You get to mingle and, as you're looking at vegetables, the person next to you can ask how to cook them," Gomez says. "Everybody seems very happy, and I look forward to going there."

Across the country, consumers are experiencing the allure of farmers' markets, which can represent gateways to healthier living for customers and income opportunities for farmers. There were 5,274 markets nationwide as of October 2009, up 13 percent from the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And many operate in states with high numbers of Hispanics; California, for example, has more than 500.

Diverse trends may be fueling the momentum. Eating organic foods and cooking at home are becoming more popular, according to Mintel, a market research company. Its research also found many people "buy local" to support their communities. Likewise, many respondents view locally produced food—which hasn't been growing older on polluting, supermarket-bound trucks—as tastier, more nutritious, and better for the environment.

But in Brownsville, where 89 percent of the residents are Mexican American, the market didn't open because of resident demand. While Gomez and others may enjoy vegetables, research shows many families' diets don't include much produce. The Brownsville Farmers' Market was created in 2008 by community leaders seeking to improve the health of their border town. Mexican American adults there have higher rates of obesity and diabetes than Mexican Americans nationally, according to the University of Texas School of Public Health.

Market organizers envisioned a venue not only for buying fresh, locally grown produce, but also for educating the population about healthy food choices and active living. Today, about 80 percent of the market's patrons are Latino and, of those, about half are age 45 or older. An informal survey of market shoppers last year found that 79 percent had increased their fruit and vegetable consumption. "We're already seeing small changes in behavior and, over time, these small changes can make a big difference," says Belinda Reininger, DrPH, an associate professor of behavioral sciences at the University of Texas School of Public Health and one of the market's organizers.

When the market is open—Saturday mornings from November through May—shoppers can talk with health professionals, pick up health-related brochures written in English and Spanish, watch cooking demonstrations, and participate in health screenings. Low-income families can receive food vouchers to purchase produce at prices generally comparable to those of local supermarkets.

Customers can obtain more than basic ingredients. Vendor Diana Garcia-Padilla, of Yahweh's All Natural Farm and Garden, offers recipes with her chemical-free produce such as chard, zucchini, broccoli, tomatoes, and papaya. The former chef, who is based in nearby Harlingen, Texas, shares ideas for incorporating veggies into foods customers regularly eat, like adding sautéed squash and onions to quesadillas.

And her customers often share their stories with her. "We get a lot of older Latinos who were farmers or whose parents were farmers," says Garcia-Padilla, 46, a Chicago native with Puerto Rican roots. "They remember how good the fresh food tasted and come for the eggs because they know they were from that week."

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