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May is one of my favorite times of the year because it marks the beginning of farmers market season.

Farmers markets have come a long way. They carry a practical trendiness, providing a cool place to chat, support small businesses and shop for healthy, affordable and fresh food.

Northeast Iowa boasts urban and rural farmers markets from May to October. These markets have evolved beautifully over the years, and I’m a regular attendee. Often, Saturday mornings focus on racing from the Cedar Falls market to the Urban Farmers Market in Waterloo, so I can check the selection at both.

I was raised to appreciate fresh, locally grown foods. We kept a garden and shopped at food co-ops and collectives and farmers markets. For us, “ethically sourced” emphasized methods by which foods were grown and raised as well as striving to purchase directly from producers.

My Grandpa Golden lived with us for part of my childhood, and he grew a massive garden behind our home. I was astonished by his desire to eschew mechanized help in favor of tilling, watering and weeding under his own power.

The result of his labor was an amazing and plentiful bounty. Neighbors often stopped to marvel at his garden. Inevitably, he waved over passersby and told them to take what they could carry. Likewise, he was unperturbed by those who didn’t wait for an invitation.

The latter upset me, and I said so. Grandpa told me his mother taught him to share, no matter how little they had. Through his garden, God provided us with more than enough to eat. His belief was that the remainder must be shared freely with others.

Further, the time spent gardening allowed Grandpa to reflect and pray. The reward for his efforts, he said, was the garden’s output, rewards that “multiplied when shared.”

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I’m sorry to say my annoyance didn’t disappear. By my estimation, people took Grandpa’s generosity for granted.

When I voiced my concerns, Grandpa was patient. Eventually, I came to respect — if not understand — his garden represented a cherished hobby, his love of good food and a desire to bring others happiness.

Grandpa was among those who gave me respect for anyone who turns the soil. From those who tend personal patches to farmers market vendors and large operations, people who produce food do so first because it’s a loving, spiritual occupation.

It’s essential that we provide support for community farmers markets. Through them, we support the continuation of local food sourcing and safeguard access to healthy food options.

It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. As consumers have continued to provide support, farmers markets have implemented conveniences like acceptance of credit, debit and electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards. They also spur innovations that provide increased access to lower incomes, such as incentive programs Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This program helps lower-income seniors and families.

Nationwide, the number of farmers markets that accept SNAP benefits has more than doubled since 2017, from 3,214 to 7,377 in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Many area farmers markets participate.

Customers have responded in kind. The USDA reports that SNAP households shopping at farmers markets have increased by nearly 36% since 2012. Today, Americans who receive SNAP benefits account for more than $22 million in annual farmers market sales.

For more information on the healthy and social benefits of farmers markets, search the topic at IowaFreshFood.com.

Karris Golden writes The Courier’s weekly faith and values column. Email her at onfaith@karrisgolden.com.

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