Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Open Letter: Request for Accurate Labeling at Farmers' Markets

Sent today to Michele Burke, owner of Colorado Fresh Markets

Dear Ms. Burke,

As the owner of Colorado Fresh Markets, you are responsible for operating the Cherry Creek, Stapleton, City Park, Civic Center, and Greenwood Village markets. These are undoubtably some of the largest and most successful markets in the Denver metro area. As such, you are in a unique position to influence the standards of practice at all Denver markets.

I would like to ask that you begin, immediately, to request that your vendors visually label any produce that is grown out of state. I understand that your contracts for the 2009 markets have been signed long ago. However, you could strongly request that they begin this practice for the remainder of the 2009 season, and include it as a requirement in your contracts for 2010.

Local food is becoming more of an important issue every day, as I'm sure you are aware. There are a multitude of reasons why consumers are interested in purchasing locally grown food, including food safety and security, environmental concerns, food taste and quality, and supporting the local economy. Farmers' Markets continue to receive press as the prime destination for anyone who wishes to buy food grown by Colorado farmers.

Food, especially produce, that is sold at a Farmers' Market (or a "Fresh" Market promoted as a Farmers' Market) is assumed to be local. This is something that I believe is critical we acknowledge. Although there are a small number of local food insiders who know that, more often than we would like, the produce at markets comes from California and Mexico (especially in the early part of the season), these folks are far and away the minority. If you were to stop 10 people at a Farmers' Market and ask them who grew the food at the nearby stall, I strongly believe that each and every one of them would state unequivocally that the food came from the local farm that is selling it.

"Local" is every bit as much a value-added concept as "organic." We would never sell conventionally grown produce as organic, so why is it acceptable to sell Californian and Mexican produce as local? I do know that many vendors will reveal the origins of the food to anyone who asks, but this is not enough. The vendors are far too busy to educate every person who comes to their stall, and many of the customers don't realize they should be asking.

Therefore, all produce that is grown out of state should be clearly, visually labeled as such. This is not prohibitively difficult for a vendor. The labeling could take the form of handwritten paper signs on the non-local items, or dividing the table with signs pointing one way for local and the other way for out of state, or the items could be labeled on the vendor's chalk or dry-erase board.

There is no reason why any responsible vendor would not agree to this. If they were to resist efforts to accurately label what they sell, they would be admitting that they are in fact invested in passing off their Mexican tomatoes as Colorado grown. I have heard the argument that Denver consumers demand variety at their markets (above and beyond what Colorado's seasonal produce can provide), and that's the reason the vendors "have" to sell out of state product. I don't necessarily agree with this premise (just look at the success of the Boulder growers-only Market), but I'm not trying to limit what vendors are allowed to sell. I am simply requesting that it be labeled properly. If someone wants to buy a melon from California that's fine with me, but I want them to know that it travelled 1,200 miles to get to them.

I am writing this as an open letter, as I feel this issue is critically important to many Denver consumers. I do happily make a portion of my living selling local food. However, I am not pressing this issue because of my business; I am asking as a Denver resident who loves Farmers' Markets. I also strongly believe in the rights of consumers to know the truth about what they eat, especially if they're taking the time to go to a Farmers' Market to shop.

I believe that requiring vendors to visually label all out of state produce is a simple step that will be greatly appreciated by your customers. I also think it will bring a level of transparency to the Denver markets that is currently lacking. I look forward to your response.


Sundari Kraft
Heirloom Gardens

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