In California in 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill to employ farmers market inspectors around the state. The goal: crackdown on produce fraud. According to NPR, the state was ripe with impersonating local produce — Mexican cantaloupes masquerading as L.A.-grown, for instance — and it had to be stopped.
Of course, the practice of selling veggies and fruits disguised as locally grown is a common problem across the United States. In her award winning story “Farm-to-Fable,” Tampa Bay Times Food Critic Laura Reilly exposed the fraudulent food practice all over Florida, from farmers markets to fine dining establishments:
I ask a young woman if the produce is from her farm. She says yes. I ask if it is all from her farm. She says no, they buy from neighboring farms. When I notice asparagus and apples, which generally don’t grow in Florida, I ask if it is resold produce from a broader radius. She says yes. And then I ask, specifically, which items are grown on Lee Farms.
Her answer: “We are currently replanting.”
In 40 seconds, Lee Farms went from growing everything to nothing.
And if you think it doesn’t happen in Charleston, you’re fooling yourself. (Psst, we don’t grow Honeycrisp apples here either.) That’s why Johns Island Farmers Market (JIFM) operators Frasier Block and Blue Laughters have announced a new Truth and Transparency campaign designed to weed out the phonies in the food biz.
“It’s something that I’ve been trying to regulate for the many years that we have been in business,” says Block. But she says that a recent visit to the South Carolina State Farmers Market finally pushed her to take a stronger stance.
“I was really displeased with my visit to the Columbia State Farmers Market. It should be called a food hub and shouldn’t be called a farmers market. Granted there are a couple of SC certified sheds, but there’s also a lot of produce you could get at the grocery store.”
This kind of unchecked retail situation Block finds wildly frustrating. “If they can slap a Johns Island sticker on it and people don’t know the difference, then they can make an up charge and sell the same thing you’d find in a grocery for a higher price.”
Which is why Block and her partner Laughters are committed to mitigating fraud at JIFM. Block worked on farms for two years, so she has a working knowledge of seasonality and what does and doesn’t grow locally. Add to that the visits she and Laughters are making to each JIFM vendor and she says they’ve been able to winkle out the fraudsters.
Block adds that she’s not entirely against JIFM selling produce from outside Charleston, but if a JIFM vendor wants to do sell Southeastern produce, they’ll need to run it by her first and have said produce properly labeled with its origin.
“No other state market is regulating this and South Carolina has no policies to enforce this,” she adds. Which brings us back to California. Would Block like to see state farmers market inspectors like the ones Gov. Brown introduced?
“I think it would be awesome. People wouldn’t be getting away with duping people. Lying to line their pockets. Especially when it’s around such a genuine wholesome thing,” she says.
Bottom line, whether it’s a sunchoke or a strawberry you’re buying at the local farmers market, Block believes “people deserve the truth.”
The Johns Island Farmers Market is located at Charleston Collegiate School campus at
2024 Academy Drive and open every Saturday from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. For more information, visit johnsislandfarmersmarket.com. [location-1]
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