HEALTH: How to shop smarter at Los Angeles farmers markets


I’m one of those people who loves farmers markets for the ambiance but often ends up walking away empty-handed. The abundance stuns me into apathy, and all I can do is pull out my phone and take photos of cut-in-half yellow watermelon or piles of golden squash blossoms and then run back to my car — iced coffee sweating in one hand and my phone in the other — while my empty tote bag flaps in the breeze.

As much as photos of vegetables make nice home screens, I would much rather have a fridge full of fresh produce to sustain me for the week. Of course, there are boxes you can order that deliver produce to your door and grocery stores you can visit, but nothing beats the feeling of strolling through an aromatic outdoor farmers market with a plan.

Here’s what L.A.-area farmers market vendors, chefs and pro shoppers recommend so you can actually buy what you need at farmers markets without stressing.

Irvine Farmers Market

Irvine Farmers Market

(Jessica Benda/Los Angeles Times)

1. Plan ahead

To avoid feeling overwhelmed at the farmers market, make a list based on what you plan to cook for the week. “I think it’s very important to plan ahead. Decide the night before what you plan to make. … When you show up to the market, you have an idea of the ingredients you want to buy and use,” said chef Jose Contreras of Bar Lis while piling end-of-season Sungold tomatoes into a cardboard box at the Hollywood Farmers Market.

A list is also helpful to save money and avoid food waste. Vendor Shae Seward of Cobblermania chimed in: “Have a list so you don’t end up buying stuff you don’t need, and try to stick to your list. Don’t just walk the aisles like you do at the supermarket … because you’ll inevitably buy what you weren’t looking for.”

2. Scope out the territory

Los Angeles County is home to dozens of farmers marketsand each market has something different to offer. For instance, the Alhambra Farmers Market has a great selection of Asian produce. “I tend to go a little before it opens to avoid all the people. I usually check to see what farms are at which markets, since I have favorite ingredients from specific ones. Hollywood and Santa Monica are my favorite, but lately Pasadena has been really good on Saturdays!” said chef, baker and Jell-O artist Lexie Park of Eat Nunchi.

I met microgreens farmer Jon Ho of Ho.Listic Operations at the Redondo Beach Farmers Market. He recommends checking out the markets online first. “Like school, we want to be prepared. Try to find a few markets on social media and see if they have a list of vendors. … Then you can go to the market and scope it out. You don’t have to feel pressure to buy anything right away.”

Fresh flowers at Rick's Produce Market, inside the Original Farmer's Market.

Fresh flowers at Rick’s Produce Market, inside the Original Farmer’s Market.

(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

3. Bring a cart

While most people go to the farmers market with a few wrinkled totes, I usually find myself stuffing 20 tangerines in my purse. Experts recommend a rolling cart/bag or a bag with handles that don’t cut into the palm of your hand. “I definitely always bring a cart to avoid having to carry bags,” said Park. Mona Welch, a frequent Hollywood Farmers Market shopper from Westwood, recommends bringing empty yogurt containers for smaller purchases, “so they don’t get squished.”

4. Let the seasons guide you

California barely has seasons, but that doesn’t mean our produce isn’t seasonal. Do some research ahead of time. Or, Welch recommends, “Ask what’s good right now. Pretend like you don’t know anything and trust the farmers.,” You can also just observe your surroundings and look at what is plentiful and what other people are buying.

5. Put your phone away and make friends with vendors

A lot of vendors have “no photos’’ signs, so keep your phone in your pocket and strike up a conversation. Who knows? Maybe the farmer will throw you an extra head of cabbage. “I don’t need to hard sell people because if they like the experience, they’re going to come back … and build a baseline of trust,” said cheesemonger Jaz Persing of Stepladder Creamery. Vendors also are eager to share recipes and techniques, like Erika Wain Decker of Klausesbees at the Monrovia Farmers Market. “I can give some new ideas of how to utilize honey if you’re not familiar!”

Patrons look over plants at the weekly Downtown SLO Farmers' Market in San Luis Obispo.

Patrons look over plants at the weekly Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market in San Luis Obispo.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

6. Bring cash

Cash isn’t dead after all. “Most vendors take cards, but it helps to bring cash,” recommends Park. And the vendors agree. Atef Alomari of Brothers Products at the Monrovia Farmers Market told me that even though he accepts cards, he “prefers cash” to avoid those extra credit card fees.

7. Don’t forget the samples

So your phone is put away. Your cart is rolling. You have a list in hand and cash in your pocket. You’re ready to make smart purchases … but don’t forget the free samples! There aren’t too many places left outside of Costco that offer free samples. What better way to make friends with the farmers and learn about new ingredients and seasonal produce than by trying them for yourself?

“At the farmers market, you’ll see stuff that you don’t see in regular markets. … Lots of vendors give samples. So you’re able to sample the produce instead of buying something that caught your eye and then going home and not liking it,” said Cobblermania’s Seward.

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