As the new markets begin opening each year, I get questions about what “local” means in a farmers’ market that carries roasted coffee beans, Kettle Korn and other foods not necessarily sourced locally.
We do guarantee that our produce is grown locally, which in this area can include on farms located in Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania in addition to Virginia. In fact, many of our farmers from outside of Virginia are actually closer to our markets than our Virginia farmers, especially those from the Northern Neck of Virginia who drive two hours each way to get to our markets.
But the U.S. and Virginia Departments of Agriculture recognize another product designation. “Value-added” applies to vendors, many of whom are cooks or bakers, who start with one or more raw ingredients and produce a product by adding skill, talent, or specialized expertise in order to render something palatable or edible. This is the category under which we accept Kettle Korn poppers and coffee roasters as well as bakers and short-order cooks. Many of these vendors are personally committed to using local ingredients when they can, and they buy from their fellow vendors as often as possible. Smart Markets encourages this but does not require it.
A significant element of our mission is to support the small food entrepreneur, which we believe is a good way to ensure that locally prepared foods will continue to be available in our communities. These foods are almost always healthier than fast foods. We therefore want to see these small businesses succeed, and if that means their buying of some ingredients wholesale for a while, then we accept that as part of their cost of doing business. We’d have no salsa in winter otherwise.
Most vendors are happy to tell you where their ingredients come from, and many actually make a big deal of it in their signage and printed materials. And if you want to support those vendors who are more committed to local sourcing, that is your choice. That too is what markets are about — giving you choices based on what is most important to you, your family, and its budget. While our mantra has always been that “food is cheaper than medicine,” we all know that our food budgets are a daily concern with immediate consequences.
Remember to ask what you want to know at the farmers’ market. Someone will have the answer!