By: Amy Sun
“Would you like to try some fresh melon salad?” I offer as a customer walks by. “It’s free,” I add. That one word is all most passerby need to hear. Fresh, flavorful, colorful and best of all free. Who would say no to a free sample of beautiful looking food served on a platter, no strings attached? In September, I worked with several University of Maryland Extension Food Supplement and Nutrition Education (FSNE) educators at various farmers markets. I prepared and distributed free samples of healthy recipes featuring produce that can be found at the markets. Through working with the educators I was able to learn about FSNE’s Market to Mealtime curriculum, how to practice food safety in a non-kitchen setting, and how to better communicate with the consumers that visit farmer markets.
FSNE, Maryland’s SNAP-Ed program, developed a curriculum called Market to Mealtime, which the educators and I used at the farmers markets. The goal of this curriculum is to help adults learn how to prepare seasonal fruits and vegetables found at farmers markets and incorporate them into their diets. Most adults know that they should be eating fruits and vegetables. However, for many people, not knowing how certain items taste or how to properly prepare these items so that they taste good is enough of a barrier to keep them from eating more produce. In addition, habits and eating patterns are hard to change. The Market to Mealtime curriculum seeks to educate customers in a practical manner and possibly gently guide them to choose new types of produce. With small portions of free samples, customers can taste new foods and learn how to incorporate them into simple, tasty recipes.
Although the summer was winding down during my rotation, heat was still an issue that needed to be combatted at the market. Food safety was especially important. I learned firsthand how to practice food safety outside of the kitchen. At the various market stands where I was stationed, everyone involved in food service had a handwashing station. Gloves were worn when preparing food. Most importantly, food was kept in a cooler until served to prevent pesky bugs from getting in the dishes and to keep the food at a safe temperature.
The focus of Market to Mealtime is the customer, and it is important to meet them at their level. Every customer is unique, and their barriers to eating certain fruits and vegetables differ. Working with the educator, I communicated with customers of different ethnicities and who spoke different languages. The educators had written signs and recipe cards in Spanish tailored for the Hispanic audiences. In addition, it was amazing to see how each educator verbally assuaged whatever concerns the customers had regarding certain produce items. For example, a customer was reluctant to try a sample of kale caesar salad. The educator engaged in a casual conversation and asked the customer why. The customer said that she does not like the tough texture of kale. The educator explained that acid from the lemon juice and a quick massage of the leaves softens the kale. In the end the customer did try and really enjoyed their sample. The educator did not judge the customer, they simply asked a question, listened to their concerns, and addressed them appropriately. I learned that by being friendly, I can get closer to a customer. I also learned that by finding out what worries a customer and I can work with them to resolve their hesitancy in trying new foods.
There are so many great opportunities for nutrition educators to reach and spread their knowledge to a wider audience. Working with the Market to Mealtime curriculum was a real joy. I was able to learn about the behind the scenes process of practicing food safety in an outdoor setting. I was also able to learn about how the educators attempted to bridge the language barriers in their community with signage in Spanish. Most importantly, I learned how to engage with a customer to help them at least try out a produce item. By preparing and offering free samples of Market to Mealtime recipes, customers could simultaneously try out something new. If they liked their sample, they were welcome to take a copy of a recipe card and purchase the produce needed all while never leaving the market. Passing out free samples might seem like a trivial action, but the potential to impact customer health through eating patterns is anything but.