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Michelle Obama and White House chef Sam Kass have actively supported farmers markets such as the new Vermont Avenue market. (AP -- Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Growth in the number of U.S. farmers markets is accelerating, according to figures to be released later today by Department of Agriculture. Over the past year, the number has grown by 589 markets, or 12.6 percent, from 4,685 in 2008 to 5,274 in 2009.

The numbers are especially dramatic because they represent a single year; the last time the USDA charted farmers market growth, it was for the two-year period between 2006 and 2008, when the number grew by 6.8 percent. "The increasing growth each year really underscores the public's interest in locally grown food and connecting with their farmers," Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan said in an interview. "It's good news."

The growing interest in farmers markets is driven by consumer concerns about food safety and a renewed focus on healthful eating. Last month, the Department of Agriculture launched an initiative dubbed "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food," designed to help develop local and regional food systems and spur economic opportunity for small farmers.

Michelle Obama also has drawn attention to markets and the importance of eating fresh fruits and vegetables. This spring, the first lady became the first since Eleanor Roosevelt to plant a garden on the White House lawn. Last month, she helped to christen the new market on Vermont Avenue, several blocks from the White House.

There were just 1,755 farmers markets when the Agriculture Department first began tracking them in 1994. USDA officials are hopeful that new initiatives, such as Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, will help increase the number of markets and access to fresh, local food.

"Maybe I need resources from USDA to aggregate products to bring to the city. Maybe I need help figuring out how to help [those on public assistance] pay at the market," Merrigan said. "We need to reorient what we do to support this burgeoning interest on the farmer and the consumer end."

Merrigan also is hopeful that the growing number of farmers markets will help entice children to eat more fruits and vegetables, though she noted that there is not enough research to make a direct link. In her own nutrition research at Tufts University, where she worked before coming to Washington, she saw that children who worked in gardens at school were more willing to try and more likely to consume fruits and vegetables.

"Farmers markets are just one small piece," she said. "But we're excited about them."

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  October 2, 2009; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Food Politics , Sustainable Food  | Tags: Jane Black, Michelle Obama, farmers markets  
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