- Farmers Market Produce: Local vs. Organic
- Can grackles make you sick? Find out what is lurking inside the birds
Farmers Market Produce: Local vs. Organic
By Sally Wadyka
Faster than you can say “kale salad,” it seems like yet another farmers market pops up. In fact, there are more than 8,700 registered in the USDA’s Farmers Market Directory.
It’s easy to understand why farmers markets are popular: They offer fresh fruit and vegetables, plus a chance to meet the people who grow what you’re buying. But it’s not always clear to shoppers whether the produce heaped up all around is local, organic, or both.
What You Get With Organic
For starters, consumers need to know that local and organic are not the same thing. “In order to call your produce organic, you [the farmer] have to be certified by the USDA,” says Joe Masabni, Ph.D., a vegetable specialist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research & Extension Center in Overton.“There is paperwork to fill out, processes to follow, and you have to be approved.” A certification agency accredited by the Department of Agriculture checks annually that the farm is complying with organic standards. The exception: Farmers with yearly sales of less than $5,000 do not need to be certified to use the term organic.
Organic growers are prohibited from using most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, as well as antibiotics (which conventional farmers may use on animals and certain fruit trees). Organic farmers also must take measures to protect water and soil quality.
The USDA Organic seal is “your guarantee that the food you’re buying was produced in ways that minimize harm to health and the environment,” says Charlotte Vallaeys, senior policy analyst at CR and a sustainability expert.
What to Like About Local
As to the question of what “local” means, the USDA says that more than 85 percent of vendors at farmers markets come from within 50 miles of their location. Markets often permit growers only from a certain geographical radius and can be strict about people selling only what they’ve produced. But others allow vendors to sell products they haven’t grown or produced themselves. Every farmers market sets its own rules and has a manager, so if these issues matter to you, ask the manager for details.
Ideally, Vallaeys says, you’d buy fruits and vegetables that are local and certified organic. But if the food is just grown locally (and doesn’t have that organic seal), buying it still has many advantages.
Consider the fact that although many supermarkets carry local produce, much of what you find at stores has been transported 1,200 miles, on average. Produce at farmers markets is often picked ripe and sold within a day. That translates into fresher, more nutritious food because the vitamins and other nutrients haven’t had time to break down,” says Lauri Wright, Ph.D., R.D.N, assistant professor of nutrition at the University of North Florida.
Making Organic More Affordable
Farmers markets often get a bad rap for being expensive, but Wright says that’s not necessarily true. “They’re selling what’s in season and plentiful, so often they’re able to sell it at great prices, she says. “Plus, produce that hasn’t been sitting in a truck for days will last longer, and that can save you money by reducing food waste.”
In particular you can get good deals on organics. According to the USDA, local, certified organic products at farmers markets are almost always competitively priced when compared with prices at retail stores. Here are some tips for fitting organic into your budget.
Do the prep yourself. If you’re a fan of, say, the baby-cut carrots you see in supermarkets, know that you are paying a premium for whole large carrots to be peeled and cut into small pieces. Organic whole carrots tend to be less expensive than the nonorganic baby-cut variety. Ditto for greens; you may be able to get a loose head of organic lettuce for less money than conventional lettuce packaged in a bag or tub.
Snack on organic fruits and vegetables. USDA researchers have found that fresh produce often costs less than sweet and salty snacks.
Buy a ‘share’ in a farm program. When you join a CSA (community supported agriculture) program, you pay the farmer at the start of the season. Then you receive a share of the harvest weekly or biweekly throughout the season. In this system, you’re likely to spend less than you would if you bought the same goods at the store. Worried you’ll have more fruits and vegetables than you know what to do with? You can also preserve them for the winter months by canning, drying, or freezing.
Can grackles make you sick? Find out what is lurking inside the birds
By Nicole Villalpando
Sarah Hamer knows about the icky things that grackles, like all wild birds, can spread. She’s an associate professor of epidemiology and the director at the Schubot Avian Health Center at Texas A&M University.
When it comes to grackles, where do you go to study them? Why, you show up with a team of students at your local H-E-B in College Station and start netting the birds. Hamer and her students collected samples from 114 birds in 2015 and found that 1.8 percent of the birds had salmonella.
“It was significant even though it was a low percentage of the birds,” she says.
Picture this: The birds leave droppings that might contain salmonella on your grocery store cart. You or your food touches that cart. Ick.
Some of the birds also had antibodies for West Nile virus, though the numbers of infected haven’t yet been released in what was a joint project with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mosquitoes draw blood from the birds, picking up the virus, then those mosquitoes can carry the virus to you. “They have some role in the transmission,” Hamer says.
More than half the birds had blood parasites. Those only affect birds and have caused some species to become extinct, though these grackles did appear to be healthy.
How do you get rid of grackles?
Such parasites have been known to cause problems in grackles, however. In January 2007, 63 birds were found dead on Congress Avenue. Their deaths were blamed on a lack of water, a rapid drop in temperature and parasites.
“Birds are super important,” Hamer says, when it comes to the spread of disease. They are abundant and highly migratory. That means they link diseases found in Central America to humans in cities in North America.
Kelly Simon, an urban biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, also worries about grackles spreading histoplasmosis, an infection caused by breathing in a fungus that thrives in soil with lots of bat or bird droppings. If you see feces, it’s best to avoid it, and that means keeping children away from it, too. “Don’t lick a rock that a grackle has been sitting on,” Simon says.
Parents should be careful where their babies and toddlers are exploring and should wash everyone’s hands if they’ve been around grackles.
Bob Dittmar, a wildlife veterinarian with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, says he thinks histoplasmosis is not as likely as salmonella and E. coli, both found in the droppings.
“I could probably give you a laundry list of possible disease concerns,” he writes in an email. Those also include avian flu and a kind of bird chlamydia. “But they are all remote possibilities and … common to all wild birds.”
Simon is more worried about another grackle problem. When they nest, there’s a lot of them, and they are very protective of their nests. Often they will dive-bomb people who have unexpectedly come too close to a nest and hit people with their feet and beaks. “They are hitting you with every hard edge they have,” she says. “They are protecting their babies.”
If you get dive-bombed, wash out whatever wounds you might have to make sure you don’t pick up a disease from the birds, Simon says.
The other problem with grackles, she says, is that their large gatherings can destroy the local environment, including the ground and vegetation. And the uric acid in their waste is highly damaging to cars and masonry around homes.
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