Melissa Carter

Melissa Carter: Food and fraud at the farmers market

I’m getting the message: eat fresh and eat local. But when I tried to do that I was shocked at what I found.

Like you, I’ve tried to be health-conscience when it comes to food, but I became even more hyper-aware recently after watching Katie Couric’s documentary, “Fed Up.” The movie outlines how much sugar is in pretty much every food item we eat, not just desserts, and how that level of daily sugar intake is poisoning our systems. The solution? Eat fresh fruits and vegetables. And the best place to get them is at your local farmer’s market.

There is a small storefront near my house that sells a tiny harvest of veggies on a daily basis, and because everything is displayed in old peach baskets, I assumed it was fresh from local growers. Even the older gentleman who runs the place looks like he came straight from the farm, and since he accepts only cash or a check to bag up your goods, I assumed he was the real deal.

I felt very proud that I was being healthy and helping out Georgia farmers by buying and enjoying their goods. That is, until last week.

I entered the store square-shouldered and confident. I filled my peach baskets to the brim with tomatoes, potatoes, oranges, and plums. Everything was great until I got home and grabbed one of the plums to eat. Rinsing it off, I noticed a sticker. With a bar code on it. From California.

My mouth literally dropped open for a moment (before I popped the fruit into it).

So if the plums I buy from this place aren’t local, how many other items did I purchase that weren’t either? And speaking of purchasing, did I end up paying more for these items than I would have at the grocery store? I vowed never to go back.

After complaining about my experience on social media, a listener sent me an article from Modern Farmer magazine regarding “farmers market fraud.” It described the efforts by California to curb this fraud, culminating in Governor Jerry Brown’s signature on AB 1871 last fall.

Under the new law, growers will be required to display signs on their produce with their name, county of production, and a statement that assures, “We grow what we sell.” False or misleading claims about a producer’s identity, growing region, or methods of production are a misdemeanor, punishable by fines of up to $2,500 or even imprisonment. It seems Georgia should consider passing something similar.

I used to associate food with Southern culture. A large family gathers for a Sunday afternoon dinner with dishes they spent a day, or days, preparing. The worst offense at such a feast would be to bring something you bought at a grocery store. That would be considered cheating, and lazy. The pride in having made the favorite dish could last a lifetime.

Now, after these documentaries about the food industry and my experience in my own neighborhood, my relationship with food is different. I look at food with skepticism, wondering what someone has added, transformed, or substituted in whatever it is I’m about to eat. Unlike at the Sunday gatherings, I don’t trust the cook who has prepared my pre-packaged meals, and worse yet, I no longer trust the farmer who sells me a plum.