Tuesday, October 21, 2014 · 5:30 p.m.

Becoming a farmers market regular

Newbies say "don't be scared," advocates say it's all worth it

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Local farmers markets offer not only a fresh and healthful variety of locally grown options but also a new kind of grocery shopping experience. (Photo: Staff)

With May in full swing, it won't be long before an abundance of locally grown strawberries, spinach, carrots, squash, beans and blueberries will be harvested each week and sold at area markets, in many cases the same day they are pulled from the ground.

As the trend to eat locally grown food grows, many may be considering jumping on the bandwagon with the approaching robust growing season this summer.

Although shopping at farmers markets is unlike a usual visit to the grocery store, local farmers and foodies say the differences are worth the adjustment.

Stephanie Mizutani of East Ridge said she and her husband started slowly last year but are now buying food for their family every week beginning this spring after one particular movie night at home.

"My husband and I watched the movie "Food, Inc." and decided to start taking it all more seriously. After watching that movie, you just never know where your meat comes from. So it's nice to know now it comes from 30 minutes down the road," Mitzutani said.

Mitzutani said it takes a little extra planning to get to the markets with her children each week, but she said her family is now eating healthier and that she is saving money.

Tips for shopping at farmers markets

1. Walk the market before you purchase anything to see what is fresh and available. Compare prices.

2. Bring cash, singles if possible, and plenty of plastic or reusable totes for your groceries.

3. Bring your produce home right away. Remember locally grown and organic foods are not using preservatives to extend freshness.

4. Try new things and ask questions. Farmers love to talk about what they do, how they grow their food and how they enjoy cooking it. If something looks unusual that you want to try, ask the farmer how to prepare it.

5. There are many markets to choose from in the Chattanooga area. Pick one that is either close to you or is open during convenient hours for you. Don't complicate your busy life and make it too much of a chore.

6. Make sure you are shopping at a real farmers market and not a roadside produce distributer. Just ask where the food is grown. If you are not comfortable with the answer, don't shop there.

7. Go without a shopping list so that you are creating a meal plan based on the freshest available in-season foods to maximize nutrition, taste and quality in your selections.

8. Leave yourself a little extra time to enjoy the atmosphere and community that make each farmers market so unique.

"The biggest difference is our fridge now looks empty most of the time instead of full because we use everything we buy, and then we come back a week later and buy more. We're not stocking up like we used to. We use less and don't waste as much. We've actually found it to be cheaper," she said.

Although Mitzutani considers herself a "newbie" to farmers markets—a place author Michael Pollan called the new public square during a recent talk in Chattanooga last month—she is learning quickly the best way to navigate the offerings each week.

Local food advocates and market managers suggest several easy tips to help anyone new to farmers markets enjoy the experience so that it doesn't feel like a chore.

Changing your expectations is the first place to start, according to the Main Street Farmers Market manager Bonnie Baranowski.

"Many people do farmers markets in the opposite way they shop in a grocery store. You come to a store with a list, but at a market you find things that surprise you that are new that week. So many people recommend coming without a list and fuel a little more creativity in the kitchen," she said.

Making a meal plan based on what is available and in-season each week may require some adjustments, according to Baranowski, but the quality and nutritional value of each meal is increased.

Baranowski said it is always a good idea to walk around the market when you first arrive before purchasing anything to see what looks fresh and appealing. You can also compare prices between growers who are selling the same types of products. 

Attitude and pantry adjustments aside, local food advocate and Gaining Ground's program director Jeff Pfitzer said keeping things simple is also key.

"For newcomers, we really try to emphasize that you don't have to eat everything every day 100 percent local. There are very few people that can manage the logistics of doing that. But it's not hard to seek out the nearest [market] or most convenient [market] to your schedule," Pfitzer said.

Pfitzer said the most important thing is to visit a farmers market at least once a week and consider starting out buying a few staples like eggs and meat.

A downloadable list of area markets and operating hours is available here.

Other tips offered include always bringing cash and plastic bags or reusable totes. Consider packing a cooler with ice to transport meat and dairy products in the car. It is also suggested that you head straight home with your fresh groceries and get items refrigerated as needed.

For Baranowski, one of the biggest adjustments and positive aspects of shopping farmers markets is the opportunity to talk directly to the person who grows the food. This allows for an easy exchange of questions and answers about how to store and prepare items that are new to you and to inquire about growing methods and other practices used on each farm.

Baranowski said she thinks this is one of the best parts of markets.

"The act of food shopping has become a solitary activity in the grocery store. You can go and talk to nobody the entire time. You might pick something up, wonder about it, read the label. Farmers markets want to change that and turn it around," she said.

Today's farmer represents the grower, the grocer, the cashier, the stock boy and the cook, according to Baranowski.

"Any answer you need about each product is standing right in front of you," she said.

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