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As the food movement continues to gain momentum, demand for local, seasonal fare increases exponentially. But just as all this sustainable food crops up, another entity rears its ugly head: We're seeing more and more attempts by unscrupulous companies to cash in on the movement's popularity by "greenwashing" (or "foodwashing" perhaps) their unsustainable products. Sometimes this insidious technique succeeds in conning well-meaning consumers out of their hard-earned cash. Other times, it's just laughably transparent.
In an example of the latter kind, a Safeway in Kirkland, Washington recently set up tents in its parking lot and hung a huge, yellow banner advertising a new "Farmers' Market". Martha Tyler, manager of the local Redmond Farmers' Market, noticed the setup and stopped by, excited to see which farms the business was promoting. Unfortunately, actual farmers were conspicuously absent. Safeway had just moved their regular produce outside to be sold "farmers'-market style."
Outraged, Tyler alerted other farmers' market organizers, who were none too pleased. It wasn't long before the Washington State Farmers' Market Association wrote Safeway a letter informing them that what they were doing was not just outrageous, it was illegal. Washington's state law defines a farmers' markets as five or more actual growers selling directly to consumers. Safeway quickly agreed to remove the offending phrase and change the name to something more generic like "Weekend Outdoor Market."
While Washington market organizers seem satisfied with this solution, it still strikes me as incredibly misleading and underhanded. And while some states like Washington outlaw this kind of chicanery, many states do not. Some so-called "farmers' markets" actually sell, through intermediaries, produce from the same mega-farms found in the supermarket, or even out-of-state farms. These "farmers' markets" do not, in fact, feature any products produced by local farmers.
Even markets that do sell from small, local producers often also feature other vendors selling things like crafts and prepared foods. This variety is fine in and of itself, but when these types of vendors begin to outnumber the farmers, they can be pushed out or forced to diversify into non-food products. The result is the market no longer becomes a real opportunity for farmers to sell their goods.
It's often easy to tell if a farmers' market is the real deal or not; just look around. Are the majority of the goods for sale things you actually grow on a farm? Are the salespeople actually the growers? Ask the market manager or the vendors themselves. If you are still in doubt, you can usually look up a particular market online to learn more. If your state, like California, has a certification process, you can use that to verify authenticity. LocalHarvest.com is a great database for both finding and vetting markets in your area.
If your goal is just to get fresh air while you shop, then you may as well visit Safeway and its weekend outdoor market. But if your goal is to make a positive impact for farmers, the environment, and your community with your food dollars, then buyer beware: Be sure to double-check whether your local market is really a farmers' market.
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