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Looking for healthy food choices at farmers markets

As more and more people become interested in trying to eat locally produced foods, New York state's farmers markets are also becoming more popular. But how can you make sure what you buy at the farmers market is really healthier than what you might get at the supermarket? Linda Lowen and Lorraine Rapp, hosts of WRVO's health and wellness show "Take Care" asked Ben Vitale, who oversees the Central New York Regional Market Authority, a year-round farmers market in Syracuse. Vitale is also a farmer himself.

Linda Lowen: What do farmers have to do to sell at the farmers Market? Are there qualifications that they have to meet? Any sort of certification?

Ben Vitale: Basically, if you are growing or making anything that you sell, you can come here. But you can only sell what you make or grow. The only other qualifications -- if you are selling taxable items, you have to have a certificate of authority to collect the sales tax. And then we require a certificate of insurance from all of our vendors. Other than that, it’s pretty much on the honor system. If you are selling plants, nursery products, you will be required to have a nursery certificate from the [New York State] Department of Ag[riculture] and Markets.

Lorraine Rapp: When vendors do make certain claims, let’s say dairy farmers, has somebody checked it out? Do you do spot checks occasionally to make sure that what they’re claiming is true?

Ben Vitale: First of all, we are not an enforcement agency, but we will do spot checks if we are asked to. And what we do is we assist people, like the Department of Agriculture, Health Department, things like that, but we do not enforce their laws. So if you’re going to be ask about a person who claims to be selling organic produce, well, the people that certify that is USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture]. And if they are honestly certified by USDA they can actually show you their USDA certificate. They have to go through a certain process in order to get that certification from USDA and you can very easily ask them for it. A lot of the people that may be at the market may claim to be growing organic, but the term “organic” is kind of vague in a lot of respects because there’s so many different perceptions of what organic is.

Linda Lowen: So if you have any questions, as a shopper, it’s not impractical to interview the farmer, I guess, about growing and everything. You yourself are a farmer, and you don’t mind if people come and ask you about your farming methods or anything like that, do you?

Ben Vitale: Not at all, I encourage that and that’s what’s so fantastic about a farmer’s market is when you find the farmers that are actually growing the stuff, talk to them.  Ask them what they’re grow[ing], how they’re growing it, what processes  they are using. And that’s the other clue, is if they can’t answer those questions? There’s a good possibility that they’re probably really not the ones growing it.

Lorraine Rapp: What is the advice on getting the most out of our trip to the farmer’s market?

Ben Vitale: Well if it’s your first time, I would recommend that you travel through the whole market and look what’s available before you start buying. Otherwise, first of all, you might not have anything left in your pocket to buy what you really want toward the end. And then, it’ll also give you an opportunity to see the different qualities, the different variety of things that are here because it’s a huge variety. It’s not like you are going in a produce department of a grocery store.  I mean every time you go down another aisle it’s a whole new produce department. So you really need to walk through the market, see what’s here. And then once you start buying at a farmers market, and you buy things that you really, really like, you know make note of it. And make sure you go back and patronize those farmers or those growers or even those dealers all the time because that’s, you know, I keep on saying it’s about building relationships. And that’s what food is -- it’s about building relationships. When you’re having people over for dinner and you’re cooking together and doing things. It’s so much more than just the nutrition, it’s about you know, socializing and building relationships so, it’s important at a farmers market too.


More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sunday evenings at 6:30 p.m.  Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.