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Editor’s note: This story originally appeared Aug. 10 on Facing South, the online magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies. It appears here through a content-sharing agreement.

[Last week was] the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 12th annual National Farmers Market Week, an occasion to highlight the benefits of bringing affordable, healthy food closer to consumers.

A new report released for the occasion shows that the South lags behind other regions in the number of farmers markets per capita, despite its strong agricultural industry. That represents a missed opportunity to create not only healthier communities but also healthier economies in a region struggling with obesity and job loss.

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“On the whole, farmers markets have seen exceptional growth, providing local communities with fresh food direct from the farm,” said Jeffrey O’Hara, author of the report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. “But our federal food policies are working against them.”

The report — titled “Market Forces: Creating Jobs Through Public Investment in Local and Regional Food Systems” — found that the number of farmers markets nationwide more than doubled between 2000 and 2010 to over 6,100.

That growth happened with relatively little help from the federal government. While the USDA spent over $13 billion last year alone in various subsidies that went mostly to large industrial farms, it spent less than $100 million to support local and regional farming operations. The report makes the case that shifting even a small portion of those subsidies could improve Americans’ diets and generate tens of thousands of new jobs.

Among the things the UCS report looks at are states with the greatest number of farmers market per capita. The top 10 includes not a single state in the South, despite the region’s agricultural importance. The South’s relative lack of density of farmers markets can be seen in the map below, which is from the UCS report (click on image for larger version):

Notice the relative lack of density of farmers markets in Mississippi — even though agriculture is the state’s top industry, employing about 17 percent of the population directly or indirectly.

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At the same time, Mississippi has the nation’s highest obesity rate at 34 percent. Mississippi is also the poorest state in the nation — and that’s not mere coincidence: A recent study by researchers at Ohio State University found that food stamp recipients have a higher body mass index than non-recipients, which they attributed to the high cost of healthy food.

Besides calling on Congress to support the development of farmers markets, the UCS report recommends giving low-income families greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables by allowing them to redeem food stamps at local markets.

In addition to improving public health, a revamped agricultural subsidy policy could also help build a stronger economy. According to the most recent USDA data, direct agricultural product sales amounted to a $1.2 billion-a-year business — and most of that money recirculates locally and helps create jobs.

“Farmers at local markets are a new variety of innovative entrepreneurs, and we need to nurture them,” said O’Hara. “Supporting these farmers should be a Farm Bill priority.”

Sue Sturgis

Sue Sturgis is the editorial director of the Institute for Southern Studies. A former staff writer for the Raleigh News & Observer and Independent Weekly, Sue directs and regularly contributes to the Institute's online magazine, Facing South, with a focus on energy and environmental issues. Sue is the author or co-author of five Institute reports, including Faith in the Gulf (Aug/Sept 2008), Hurricane Katrina and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (January 2008) and Blueprint for Gulf Renewal (Aug/Sept 2007). Sue holds a Masters in Journalism from New York University.

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