The notion of farmers markets as community hubs reflects the Obama administration's vision: Barack Obama was a "community organizer" before entering politics, and first lady Michelle Obama has touted healthy, garden-to-plate produce as part of her "Let's Move" exercise and nutrition initiative.
Taxpayers have a stake in this: The Agricultural Marketing Service runs a "Farmers Market Promotion Program," which offers grants -- $10 million in fiscal 2012 -- to help improve and expand domestic farmers markets, roadside stands, and other agriculture-related projects. The maximum amount awarded for any one proposal cannot exceed $100,000.
In a blog on the Agriculture Department's website, architect Fidel Delgado explained how he works with local architects, state agriculture agencies and farmers market associations on each of the "dozen or so" farmers market projects approved by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The number of farmers markets is growing: Last week, the USDA announced a 9.6 percent increase in listings in the National Farmers Market Directory. The directory now identifies 7,864 farmers markets operating in the U.S., up from 7,175 last year. (The data is self-reported.)
"Farmers markets are a critical ingredient to our nation's food system," said Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. "These outlets provide benefits not only to the farmers looking for important income opportunities, but also to the communities looking for fresh, healthy foods."
In May, the Obama administration announced it would spend $4 million to help more farmers markets install the equipment they need to accept SNAP payments (food stamps); Currently, it says some 2,500 farmers markets are using Electronic Benefit Transfer technology.
Three years ago, the USDA announced an initiative to encourage local farmers to provide their harvest to local schools. The effort included federal "Farm to School Tactical Teams" to assist school administrators in making the transition to locally grown foods. At the time, USDA said it was making $50 million available for schools to buy local produce.
And building on that effort, the administration in April 2012 announced new investments in farm to school programs nationwide "to champion U.S. agriculture and to teach students where their food comes from,” said Deputy Secretary Merrigan. Aside from connecting schools with farmers market, the taxpayer money flowing to farm to school programs may be spent on school gardens, field trips to local farms, and cooking classes, USDA said.
Effective on October 1, 2012, $5 million will be provided to USDA on an annual basis to support grants, technical assistance, and the Federal administrative costs related to USDA’s farm to school program. FNS said it anticipates awarding $3.5 million in grants in the first funding cycle. The remainder, $1.5 million, will go to training and technical assistance and administrative costs.
As part of National Farmers Market Week, which runs through Aug. 11, USDA officials are visiting a number of markets, many of which are hosting "fun activities" such as pie eating contests, cooking demonstrations, events for kids, raffle drawings and "giveaways."
The top states, in terms of the number of markets reported in the USDA's directory, include California (827 markets), New York (647 markets), Massachusetts (313 markets), Michigan (311 markets), Wisconsin (298 markets), Illinois (292 markets), Ohio (264 markets), Pennsylvania (254 markets), Virginia and Iowa (tied with 227 markets) and North Carolina (202 markets). Together they account for 49 percent of the farmers markets listed in the 2012 directory.
Geographic regions such as the mid-Atlantic, the Northeast and the Southeast saw the largest increases in directory listings.