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In Our Spotlight

Closing the Gap From Farm to Plate

When families eat fresh and local, everyone wins

Can one bite of homemade peach sorbet change the world? Maybe not—but it just might change some minds at the Fall River downtown farmers market.

This summer marked the second year that UMass Extension’s Nutrition Education Program (NEP) has collaborated with the Thursday market to prepare and hand out healthy foods that incorporate produce from local farmers. NEP staff members, who also happen to be professional chefs, develop the recipes themselves based on whatever’s ripe and ready during their weekly visit to one of the area’s farms. The farms, in turn, sell those fresh ingredients at the market. To say it’s been a hit is an understatement.

“We’re probably seeing twice as many people at the market as we were at the beginning of July,” says David Weed of the Healthy City Fall River initiative, who works with NEP to coordinate and publicize the effort. Thousands more residents benefit by watching videos of the demos and farm visits online or on the Fall River government television network, thanks to NEP’s partnership with the city. And, of course, local farmers and businesses benefit too, from increased sales and foot traffic.

This comprehensive approach—taking consumers on an educational journey from field to market to table—is part of what makes the program so effective. “We understand that it’s a long process,” says Weed. “People need to learn how to choose and prepare food before they can change their eating habits.” That’s especially true for younger people, he adds, most of whom have not grown up in an environment where farming and gardening were the norm, as many of their parents and grandparents did. “Most teens really like cooking when they know how to do it,” he says. “The key is getting these kinds of experiences to them.”

That means starting with the basics, including providing easier access to fruit and vegetables, offering simple recipes that use minimal ingredients, and enabling shoppers to use their SNAP benefits to pay for market purchases. NEP and its community partners hope to entice even more families and young people to the new Fall River winter market, slated to take place in the town’s recreation center, a spot already popular with children and teens.

Perhaps most important are the connections that grow between market-goers and farmers—literally, between consumers and the food they eat. “People are more apt to talk to farmers once they’ve found out who they are,” says Pat Bebo, program supervisor for the NEP office in Fall River. To encourage the process, NEP provides information sheets that introduce shoppers to the farmers who sell at the market. “One thing people begin to understand is that many local farms that aren’t certified organic are in fact using organic practices,” says Bebo. “They just haven’t gone through the certification process, which can be very expensive.” Instead, they often use greenhouses and other nonchemical means of pest management.

Staying small and selling locally makes practices like these more viable. “We’re happy to see that people are catching on to the idea of eating locally grown food,” says Steve Connors, manager of Westport Town Farm, which harvests its produce on market day or the evening before, ensuring that fruits and vegetables retain their full nutritional value and flavor. “The 3,000-mile salad—with lettuce from California and tomatoes from Mexico—just doesn’t make sense. When you’re buying local, you’re buying fresh.”

Tasting this freshness can be a revelation. “Parents say, ‘Oh, my kids aren’t going to like that,’” says Bebo. “So when they see their children eating corn and tomato salad, they’re amazed. And then they find out how easy it is to make.”

Opportunities to engage families in this way make the farmers market program an ideal way to extend the programs that NEP is already providing in the schools, says Weed. “We’re looking to improve the entire food environment for the community by working nutrition education into every venue we can.”

In short, as the market expands, the community benefits, and as the community expands, the market benefits. “We hope that the market idea will grow to the point where we get a variety of people coming into the city,” explains Bebo. One goal is to bring a greater variety of locally made products, such as cheese and grass-fed meats, to the winter market, as well as more music, arts and crafts, and other offerings that make it a destination for residents of Fall River and beyond.

“It’s multifaceted,” agrees Perry Long, neighborhood outreach coordinator for Fall River’s mayor, William Flanagan. “This is something every mayor throughout the commonwealth and the country is looking for: ways to revitalize cities and improve the health of citizens. It’s just good government.”