The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
USDA official swings by area farmers’ markets
By CATHY DYSON
and ROBYN SIDERSKY
USDA official Ed Avalos wasn’t kidding when he said going to a farmers market is a social event.
On Saturday, Avalos, the USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, visited markets in Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg to see the impact that federal grants are having in local communities.
As he walked among the vendors, he chatted in both English and Spanish. He said the yellow squash he saw for sale reminded him of home and a dish that he likes with squash, green chilies and cheese.
He bought long green peppers in Fredericksburg to roast and include in enchiladas that he would prepare for his staff.
And, when he saw Spotsylvania resident Al Gonzalez in front of a display of sugar-baby watermelons, Avalos asked him the best way to pick a ripe one.
“You hit it, and if it doesn’t talk back, it’s a good one,” Gonzalez said.
Customers, vendors and market managers alike said they were glad to see the USDA representative meet and greet those who bring locally grown and raised food to market.
Avalos said he was glad to be there, too.
“I want to go out to different farms and markets because that’s where I feel at home,” Avalos said.
He said the variety of fresh fruits and vegetables available at the two markets was an “incredible surprise.” At the Spotsylvania market, Elizabeth Borst tried to shuttle him around to meet some of the 45 vendors who sell there, but Avalos couldn’t take his eyes off the variety of produce.
“I’ll have time later to come back and buy a few things, right?” he wondered, then turned to his wife, Anne, and asked: “Can you get me some sweet corn? And those cantaloupes really look good.”
Avalos talked about the importance of farmers markets beyond the social opportunities, and the chance for residents to have a one-on-one conversations with people who grow their food.
“A farmers market tells you about the culture and tradition of the community,” Avalos said.
They’re also important for economic reasons because they create jobs. “And another hidden benefit is they keep agricultural land in production,” he said.
As he talked with a number of Hispanic sellers in Fredericksburg, Avalos said he met people who came to America as farm laborers, then went on to rent or buy their own farms. He was happy to see them contributing to the local economy and believed the diversity of the 20 vendors at the Fredericksburg market “is very unique to Virginia and very important to the community.”
Avalos praised three initiatives of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service that provide support for markets. They are:
The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, which focuses on unusual crops.
Know Your Farmer program, which encourages people to find locally grown foods.
The Farmers Market Promotion Program, which encourages Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients and credit-card users to shop at the markets. SNAP is the new name for food stamps.
Borst at the Spotsylvania market said the grants certainly have helped local residents. She met a woman Saturday morning who said she drives every week from Caroline County to the Spotsylvania market off State Route 3 to buy fresh food with her SNAP card.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425