Every economist knows that there is no such thing as a free lunch, but if you buy the ingredients for your lunch – or breakfast or dinner – at a farmers market you could help provide a much needed boost to the economy.
A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists stresses the importance of farmers' markets in generating local revenue and creating jobs, and identifies a number of steps the US government should take to encourage the growth of farmers' markets.
While the number of farmers' markets nationwide more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, from 2,863 to 6,132, the report’s author, Jeffrey O’Hara, argues that more government resources could be used to support farmers markets.
“On the whole, farmers markets have seen exceptional growth, providing local communities with fresh food direct from the farm,” Mr. O’Hara points out. “The fact that farmers are selling directly to the people who live nearby means that sales revenue stays local. That helps stabilize local economies.”
But if the federal government is going to make good on Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s request to help provide entrepreneurial training and support for farmers' markets as part of efforts to get 100,000 Americans to become farmers by next year, the government is going to need to use the 2012 farm bill to prioritize funding for farmers' markets.
Last year the USDA spent nearly $14 billion in commodity, crop insurance, and supplemental disaster assistance payments to support industrial agriculture, while less than $100 million was spent on supporting local food producers.
The report outlines a number of ways that the government could stimulate the growth of farmers markets.
The report’s recommendations include government funding to 500 to 2,500 farmers' markets over a five-year period.
O’Hara estimates that these funds, along with farm to school programs, could help create as many as 13,500 new jobs. The report also recommends that the government invest more money in local infrastructure, such as meat-processing facilities, to increase the efficiency of small-scale farmers.
Lastly, the report recommends that the food stamp program be expanded to allow low-income residents to purchase high-quality produce at farmers markets.
“If the US government diverted just a small amount of the massive subsidies it lavishes on industrial agriculture to support these markets and small local farmers, it would not only improve American diets, it would generate tens of thousands of new jobs,” O’Hara concludes.
To read more about farmers markets, see: Creating a local food movement and a subsistence plus plan, Looking for local, sustainable, and healthy food: An interview with Wayne Roberts and Long Live the Food Movement.
• Graham Salinger is a research intern for the Nourishing the Planet project.
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