What’s in the jar? Part 3: Get what you pay for

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This is the final installment in a series on ingredient sourcing for processed—sometimes called “value-added”—foods sold at farmers markets.

Shoppers may seek out farmers markets for a variety of reasons: because they want more “natural” foods; because they want to know how the plant or animal they’re eating was raised; because they want to support local businesses. A few farmers markets require food vendors to acquire a certain percentage of their ingredients locally, but most do not.

As the consumer, you have to decide for yourself what’s important.

Will you pay more for humane or environmentally sustainable practices? Can you live with scant supplies of your favorites in the off-season? When forced to make an imperfect choice, do you prefer locally grown or certified organic/sustainably grown? Whatever your choice, vendors who share your priorities should be able to tell you—and show you—where they get their ingredients and why.

A “Georgia Grown” label may not help you decide. The Georgia Grown website explains that agricultural food products must merely be processed in Georgia, “regardless of origin” of the ingredients, to qualify for participation in the labeling program. So a participating company need only buy, say, pickled okra packed in a Georgia factory to legitimately call it “Georgia Grown.” The okra may come from Georgia … or it may come from Florida, Mexico or the Honduras.

What can you, a mere shopper in a little farmers market, do to ensure validity? Ask, ask, ask. Educate yourself. And then, demand.

“Ask your vendor if they have open houses, if they have field days,” says Mark Stevens, founder of Capra Gia Cheese Co. And then go. “You can’t borrow a herd of goats and a milking parlor.”

“I wish more consumers would know the seasons and know the harvest,” says Lori Bean, owner of Georgia Jams. Strawberries are first, then blueberries and peaches, then apples. “Within a few months that a fruit is out of season, you probably aren’t going to have any of that stock left unless you are a commercial operation.”

If you run across a significant difference between the product description offered by the vendor in person and the description on the vendor’s website, point it out. Perhaps the vendor’s process has changed due to growth, and the website lags behind reality. A little consumer pressure may push a web redesign to a higher place on the company’s priority list.

Don’t stop with individual vendors. Seek out the market managers, too. Explain exactly what you want to buy—foods made with all organically grown ingredients, for example, or foods made with local ingredients when possible—and ask the manager to point you to the vendor that best meets your criteria.

If you suspect a vendor’s story, ask the manager for documentation. If the manager seems ambivalent, seek out the market’s supervisory body. Let the board of directors, or the city council, know these details matter to you.

“Shoppers need to say, ‘This is really what I want,’” says Lauren Carey, market manager at Peachtree Road Farmers Market. To other market managers, she advises, “When your market rises to the occasion, your vendors will rise to that occasion, and you will attract better vendors who will want to sell in a market that respects and honors vendors that are doing it right.”

Adds Mary Rigdon, owner of Decimal Place Farm, a maker of cheeses from farm-raised goats, the sales will follow. “For the people who are supporting that market, if the integrity isn’t there, well, there’s always another place they could go to.”

Image: A discerning shopper at Peachtree Road Farmers Market

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