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Georgia Grown Produce Finding its Way to Georgia Homes, Restaurants and School Cafeterias

September 9, 2013
The Marietta Square Farmers Market has steadily grown in vendors and customers as more people choose locally grown fruits and vegetables.

With Georgia consumers increasingly demonstrating a preference for locally grown food, plates across the state—in homes, restaurant and in school cafeterias—are more and more likely to feature locally grown food. That is no surprise to Marietta resident Johnny Fulmer. Fulmer started a Farmers Market in the city of Marietta 11 years ago as a way to “wake up Marietta on a Saturday morning.” Today as the Market Director of the Marietta Square Farmers Market, he sees a steady increase in vendors and customers.

“Over the years, we have seen a lot of young farmers get into the marketplace,” he said. “We started out with eight vendors in a small parking lot at the First Baptist Church of Marietta; about 5 years later we were able to move to the downtown Square on North Park Square, a main road in the city. We now have 74 vendors and lots of customers.”

Local food markets account for a small but growing share of total U.S. agricultural sales, according to the Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA). The increasing popularity of Farmers Markets underscore the significant impact Georgia’s agriculture continues to have on the state’s economy. Agriculture, Georgia’s number one industry, contributes $71.1 billion annually to Georgia's $763.65 billion economy, according to the GDA. Farmers Markets attract consumers in rural and urban cities across Georgia; providing access to and awareness of Georgia grown food.

Georgia Organics reports that there are 163 Farmers markets in Georgia today, up from 62 in 2008, and nine in 2003.

Fulmer believes Farmers Markets are growing in popularity because people want locally-grown fruits and vegetables.

“Locally grown food is fresher and better for you,” Fulmer said. “Most of our farmers don’t use pesticides, they either have certified naturally grown food or organic.” The Marietta Square Market only accepts vendors who sell Georgia made, grown or produced products that includes produce such as tomatoes, blueberries and peaches; produced food such as jams, jellies and honey and baked goods. It is a policy that serves the market and the downtown well.

“Our market helps our businesses on the Square and it helps the farmer, who in turn hires people to help grow, plow and maintain his or her property,” Fulmer said. Marietta Square Farmers Market vendors come as far away as Madison, and include several local residents.

“When we started the market, there were only two or three farmers markets in the metro area, now there are probably 20,” Fulmer said.

With more and more Georgians regularly stocking their refrigerators with Georgia grown food, the Georgia Department of Agricultural decided to help bring awareness of the value of Georgia grown food to Georgians while they dine out. The GDA launched Georgia Grown Executive Chef Program in 2012, and the pilot program proved to be a success.

“Georgia Grown executive chefs help create a greater awareness about the availability of the quality, local products that can be found on our state’s expanding culinary scene,” said Georgia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black. “This program is one of the many ways working with the Georgia Restaurant Association (GRA) helps us promote and foster relationships between chefs and our farmers across the state.”

"Whether you are an Executive Chef or an everyday consumer, purchasing local food is beneficial for a number of reasons," said GRA Executive Director Karen Bremer. "Georgia grown food is fresher, more nutritious, saves in transportation cost and environmental impact – and most importantly, it supports the community financially. By buying local, we can generate more revenue for our state, which will create more jobs. It's a win-win situation."

The GDA also recognized that school cafeterias offer another outlet for Georgia grown food. Beginning with the 2011-12 school year, the state Departments of Education and Agriculture joined forces to implement a Farm-to-School initiative. Under the departments’ “Feed My School for a Week” program, participating school districts selected an elementary school to host the event, and all school lunches served out of that school’s cafeteria had to be composed of 75-100 percent of Georgia grown food. During the designated week, the participating schools hosted an agriculture guest speaker, held “taste tests” for Georgia commodities, and conducted an essay contest. Each school also held an art contest focused on a single Georgia commodity, in addition to several other educational activities throughout the designated week.

Commissioner Black called the first year of the project “a great success,” and in December expanded the program to five schools across the state—West Chatham Elementary in Savannah, Skyview Elementary School in Macon, Sharon Elementary in Cumming, Colbert Elementary in Danielsville, and Southside Elementary School in Cairo.

According to the GDA, the “Feed My School for a Week” program aims to help bridge the gap in the nutritional value and quality of food served in Georgia schools, while providing more farm to cafeteria opportunities. “The result will be healthier Georgia students, decreased barriers in farm to school efforts and increased awareness as students learn and experience, both educationally and nutritionally, where their food comes from,” said Commissioner Black.