Fresh from the farm

Monday, October 22, 2012
story and photos by Allie Nicodemo

Wander around a local farmers market and you’ll see a rainbow of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, bundles of herbs and salad greens, grass-fed beef and even honey from local bees.

Farmers markets are growing more and more popular across the U.S. There are about 75 markets just in Arizona, with more than 20 in the Phoenix metro area.

Farmers markets are an excellent place to find healthful foods. But some people have had trouble accessing them.

For example, more than one million Arizonans use the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP helps people afford the food they need for good health.

But for a long time, people had trouble using SNAP benefits at farmers markets. That’s because SNAP provides benefits on an EBT card, which is like a debit card. But many farmers markets do not have the technology to accept EBT cards.

Christopher Wharton is a nutrition professor at ASU. He has worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make farmers markets more accessible.

Wharton found eight farmers markets in Arizona that did not have EBT technology. He installed wireless terminals that could accept both EBT and regular credit and debit cards. He then tracked sales at five of those markets over time.

“What we found was EBT sales went up. We expected that because it was zero before. But we also see that overall sales jumped at four of five markets and increased beyond the EBT sales alone,” Wharton says. This may be due to the convenience of being able to use a debit or credit card.

Planning healthy and affordable meals can be difficult for many reasons. For instance, some neighborhoods have low access to fresh fruits and vegetables because they are located in "food deserts"

“In some urban areas, fruits and vegetables are more expensive because they’re being sold out of corner markets rather than larger grocery stores. Grocery stores sell to a lot of people, so they can sell things at lower prices. Corner markets can’t do that,” Wharton says.

Studies show that prices at farmers markets are similar to prices at supermarkets. Another benefit of farmers markets is what they don’t offer – heavily processed “junk food” and sugary drinks.

“You don’t have vendors selling sugary beverages like sodas and things at farmers markets,” Wharton says. “Instead, you have the farmer there selling squash and tomatoes and things like that. You’re getting the healthiest foods available – whole, local fruits and vegetables – into people’s diets if they’re shopping at farmers markets.”

The USDA keeps track of farmers markets all over the country. You can search for a market near you by typing in your zip code at:

The number of farmers markets in the U.S. increased by 9.6 percent from 2011 to 2012. The USDA says there are 7,864 in operation today. The top three states for farmers markets are California with 827, New York with 647 and Massachusetts with 313.