What’s in the jar? Part 1: Defining local products

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When you go to a farmers market, you have certain expectations about the food you buy there: that it’s grown locally, using sustainable methods, by the people who are selling it. Most of the time, those expectations are met. But what about the “value-added” foods like jams, spreads, baked goods and cheeses?

That’s a grayer area. Although many of those vendors make every effort to be upfront about their ingredients and production methods, some, quite frankly, are intentionally misleading their customers. And in some cases, they have the complicity of market managers.

Just like in the real world, at farmers markets, it’s buyer, beware.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the importer of fine aged cheeses, the Vermont maple syrup guy, the wild salmon salesperson. To be sure, one could make a very good argument as to why these products, while lovely, do not belong at a Georgia farmers market—and I’d support you. But these folks are clearly advertising what they’re selling. As a consumer, you know what you’re getting. No, I am talking about the vendors who suggest, aggressively, that their factory-made jam was hand-made, or that their repackaged chevre was made with milk from a local herd.

A few of these businesses are coming really, really close to lying. And the managers who allow them in their markets either look the other way or don’t do their jobs in weeding them out.

Vendors, you know who you are. Market managers, if you don’t know, then look a little deeper.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of businesses in the farmers market world, as in the rest of the world, that are riding the local food wave. People are getting away with far too much,” says Lauren Carey, manager of Peachtree Road Farmers Market, which has a reputation of stringent standards for its producer-vendors. Carey requires vendors to document ingredient sources, and she schedules on-site visits to verify that things are as they seem.

Locating a steady supply of local, naturally grown ingredients can be a challenge for producers. It’s reasonable to expect a year-round tomato sauce maker to buy local tomatoes while in season, and to supplement with non-local when that supply runs out. But some producers bypass local sources entirely.

“I could buy frozen curd for a fraction of the cost to make my own,” says Mark Stevens, founder of Capra Gia Cheese Co. “For pennies on the dollar, we could bring in massive bulk cheese, thaw it out and put our label on it—and it falls under the same licensing, the same certification, as milking the goats and making the cheese.”

According to the Georgia Grown website, items eligible for approved use of the promotional label include “agricultural food products processed in Georgia, regardless of origin.” That means that unsuspecting consumers could buy “Georgia Grown” peach preserves made out of Chilean peaches, put into jars right here in Georgia.

Next week: Balancing authenticity and growth

Image: You can repackage purchased curd and call it local goat cheese, but you can’t fake an actual local goat, says Mark Stevens of Capra Gia Cheese Co.

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