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By Stefanie Monge

RISMEDIA, Oct. 2, 2008-(MCT)-Food prices are rising, but on a recent trip to the Omaha Farmers Market I was surprised by how far my $20 stretched. I purchased all the fresh ingredients needed to cook my favorite entree, eggplant Parmesan, with side dishes of green beans and potatoes for $12.85. The same ingredients cost $22.67 a few days later at my neighborhood supermarket.

My shopping list:

Eggplant (2): farmers market, $2; supermarket, $4.47
Roma tomatoes (10): farmers market, $2.50; supermarket, $10.68
Garlic bulb (2): farmers market, $1; supermarket, 88 cents
Green beans (1 pound): farmers market, $3; supermarket, $1.99
Red potatoes (2 pounds): farmers market, $3; supermarket, $2
Basil (1 bunch): farmers market, $1; supermarket, $2.29
Yellow onion: farmers market, 35 cents; supermarket; 36 cents

The eggplant Parmesan made with local ingredients was inexpensive and delicious. My cooking assistant said he could “taste the freshness” of the ingredients in the finished product.

Buying local was less expensive than the grocery store in this case, but the benefits of consuming local food go beyond saving money, said Vic Gutman, director of the Omaha Farmers Market.

Locally produced foods such as those available at area farmers markets are the freshest available to consumers, Gutman said. “It wasn’t shipped from somewhere else three days ago.”

It some cases, he said, the produce was picked that morning. Gutman said consumers want to know who is growing their food, which is another reason they like to eat local. “You have a relationship with the person who grew your zucchini or tomatoes.”

Jodi Welchert said she and her husband, Ken, have sold their corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, beans and other produce at the Omaha Farmers Market for 13 years. Welchert said she has served some of the same people for years.

Supporting local growers helps sustain local agriculture, Gutman said. They won’t continue to grow or raise food if there’s no market for their products and they can’t make enough to survive, he said.

Farmers markets offer a wide variety of fresh, seasonal foods. Consumers can find almost anything that can be grown locally at a farmers market, Gutman said.

Increasing consumers’ access to fresh fruits and vegetables also can encourage people to eat more of them. And fruits and vegetables offer the greatest health benefits when consumed shortly after they are picked. Their nutrients diminish when stored.

Buying local food has a positive environmental impact, too, Gutman said. The food doesn’t have to be transported as far, so it reduces the fuel needed, which reduces pollution, he said.

Also, buying food at farmers markets eliminates the need for packaging and the use of plastic or paper, Gutman said.

Farmers markets allow consumers to enjoy all of the benefits of eating local food for a cost that is comparable to the supermarket, Gutman said.

Vendors at the Omaha Farmers Market didn’t have noticeable price increases this year, Gutman said, nor has he heard any customer complaints about prices.

Welchert said she increased the prices of some products, but the increases have been moderate.

She wants to keep prices low to keep customers coming to the market near 11th and Jackson Streets, which is the only place her family sells their produce, Welchert said.

Copyright © 2008, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.