This summer, I finally participated in the one activity that most-defines every Cornell students’ stay far above Cayuga’s waters: I frequented the Ithaca Farmers Market. I had been to a farmers market before, but nothing like this. I am fairly certain that the culture shock even surpassed that in which I experienced in my first week at Cornell, seeing as I had never been to a “city” (yes, I think of this as a city).
I never quite understood why EVERYONE raves about the Ithaca Farmers Market. While the sample size of my friends certainly does not cover all of Cornell, I would say with conviction that the only person I know without inherent love of or attraction to Ithaca’s market is from the heart of an agricultural cornucopia in the middle of Europe — one in which upstate New York provides no competition to her fresh fruit smorgasbord.
One of the biggest differences between my experience at the market and that of the average Cornellian I speak of (at least that I know of) is that I am the ultimate of a science and food skeptic. I would not venture so far as to define myself as a pessimist, but I am certain I tick my friends off with my not-always-evident, foodie optimism; also known as: Only my brave friends who understand me will shop with this animal science major, nonetheless take me to Wegmans or Green Star.
In celebration of my aforementioned skepticism, I feel it appropriate to explain my hesitation with the Farmers Market. I see nothing wrong with shopping at the market if that’s how you choose to spend your money; one of its best qualities is that it brings food and agriculture into public dialogue.
My initial concern: Food safety. One big benefit, whether one wants to accept it or not, of purchasing food commercially is the amount of safety regulation the product went through to reach your table. The USDA and the FDA have stringent regulation to promote safety; however, regulation at the market level is often state and market dependent. I was appalled to not locate information regarding Ithaca Farmers Market-specific food safety information accessible on their website. Am I crazy to wonder why it was not listed under “Frequently Asked Question?”
Often times, visits to specific farms for inspections take place, though the individual products that make it from field to consumer often do not go through testing. Of great concern are refrigerated animal products. In addition, surprisingly enough, there is minimal, if any, testing done for pesticide/chemical residues or microbes on crops as they are sold — even the beloved “organic.” You rely on the farmer’s word — I am not challenging it, but am cognizant of it. This idea holds equally for roadside food stands; often, the only regulation they face are zoning and building laws.
Advertising: Capitalizing on what the consumer wants. Many of the products at the market are cast with the façade of being “organic” and “natural.” By government standards, there are no required certifications to include these layman terms on food labels, which currently — much to my dismay — have no standard or widely accepted definitions.
Sustainability: The Ithaca Farmer’s market requires vendors to live within a thirty mile, “local” radius; however, if everybody and their brother (or roommate) is driving ten miles by car or motor boat to purchase two tomatoes, a half pound of garlic scapes and cup of apple cider, all of which may have been grown in conditions arguably not the most “efficient,” the food miles add up. Consider the environmental footprint efficiency of cargo and rail, in tandem with economies of scale. There is a huge component to sustainability that is often masked behind environmental stuff, that being economics. I will concede, from a local standpoint, it seems logical to keep money in the area — especially if you can bring yourself to pay two or three-fold the price for produce than in the grocery store.
I’m not saying that you should avoid purchasing food from the Farmer’s market. I’m not eating my own words — I still think it is fascinating to spend a Saturday there, myself. I think the interface between the producer and the consumer is unique and valuable. Be an active, mindful consumer, and be prepared to pay a pretty penny for food that you really may not know as much about its past as you think you do.