FRESNO, Calif. -- As demand for locally grown fruits and vegetables has increased, so too has the number of urban farmers markets sprouting up across the nation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Friday direct-sales markets have grown 9.6 percent the past year, with California and New York leading the way. "Farmers markets are a critical ingredient to our nation's food system," Kathleen Merrigan, a deputy secretary of agriculture, said. "These outlets provide benefits not only to the farmers looking for important income opportunities, but also to the communities looking for fresh, healthy foods."
After 18 years of steady increases, the number of farmers markets across the country registered with the department is 7,864. In 1994, the number was 1,744.
Organizations such as Slow Food, founded in 1989 to counter fast-food, junk-food lifestyles, ignited consumer demand for fresh, local produce.
"My husband and I prefer to eat locally and organically," said Tracy Stuntz, a college instructor who shops at a farmers market in Fresno. "You go to the grocery store and everything is the same. The farmers market has yellow zucchini and green onions that are like a foot long -- produce you don't see other places."
Some markets are so popular, they have wait lists for farmers to sell there, including one of the largest and most diverse of all, the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco. Farmers from across the region travel there three days a week to sell fruits, vegetables, and artisan breads and cheeses to thousands of shoppers, including top chefs from the food-centric city.
Operated by the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, the iconic market on the San Francisco Bay is celebrating its 20th birthday.
"When we started, there were only three markets in the city, and now there are 29," said Liz Hunt, a center spokesman.
The Agriculture Department has worked to make the markets accessible to people of all income levels by outfitting more with the ability to accept payments from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. More than $4 million is being made available to equip markets with wireless point-of-sale equipment.