The Evolution of U.S. Farmers Markets--from Eleanor Roosevelt to Michelle ObamaMay 19, 2015
The modern concept of a farmers market, where local farmers regularly gather at a particular place in cities and towns during the summer to sell their fresh produce directly to consumers, dates back several decades. One of the earliest such outlets was the Los Angeles Farmers Market established in 1934 (and still operating), nestled in downtown Los Angeles between the La Brea Tar Pits and West Hollywood. More farmers markets popped up during World War II, often to sell the fruits and vegetables grown in the ‘Victory Gardens’ promoted as an opportunity for civilians to contribute to the war effort by many prominent Americans, including then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. One study identified 724 farmers markets operating in the United States at the end of the war in 1946.
The movement waned during the next few decades, as middle class families increasingly moved out of cities into suburban neighborhoods, and were provided with produce that was mass produced, trucked long distances over the new interstate highway system, and sold at nearby supermarkets.
The modern, “open air” community farmers market movement was revived in the 1970’s, in part by the passage of the Farmer-to-Consumer Direct Marketing Act of 1976 (P.L. 94-463), that authorized county extension agents to work with farmers on these activities. At the time, market experts and partial surveys suggested that there were about 600 enclosed and open air farmers markets still operating nationwide.
USDA began to systematically identify farmers markets in 1993, with the first nationwide count in 1994 at 1,755. A Rutgers University survey of New Jersey consumers who visited farmers markets and other direct marketing outlets in 1994 found that the majority of respondents were middle class, middle-aged, and white suburban residents, who “welcomed the opportunity to get fresh, high quality produce at lower costs.”
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