Lily Garner, 6, uproots fresh carrots and offers them to passersby at Swallowtail Farm’s Second Annual Spring Festival, a “celebration of everything good and local.” Swallowtail Farm, located north of Alachua, specializes in providing shareholders in surrounding communities with organic, sustainably harvested produce. Photo by Henry Taksier.

Ever tasted the difference between a ripe, juicy strawberry picked yesterday and an oversized strawberry sprayed with chemicals, picked last week and trucked across the country?

If yes, then you might understand why the number of farmers markets has more than tripled in the past 15 years. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more consumers are seeking alternatives to industrialized agriculture by searching for food produced close to home.

Studies have shown that eating locally grown food improves health, supports local economies, promotes the biodiversity of crops and reduces the environmental impact of shipping food around the world.

“The nutritional value of fresh fruits and veggies is at its peak right after harvest,” said Danielle Treadwell, a professor who researches organic crop production at the University of Florida.

1. Support restaurants that use locally grown food

The Jones Eastside is one of many restaurants in town that uses local sources to create its menu. The food might be more expensive, said co-owner Maya Garner, but the price takes into account more sustainable production, fair wages for workers and fresh food.

“It tastes so much better when you have something on your plate that was picked the night before,” she said. “No one can argue with that.”

Gainesville is full of resources for people who want to eat locally, so consumers have no excuse for not doing so, she said.

“We’re spoiled. We can get kiwis from New Zealand, bananas from Costa Rica, chocolate from Africa,” she said. “It’s not a natural way of eating.”

For a list of restaurants that support local farmers, ranchers and fishermen, check out Gainesville Farm Fresh.

2. Buy your groceries at Ward’s

From strawberries to beef and jams to hummus, Ward’s Supermarket, the only locally owned grocery store in Gainesville, offers year-round goods from nearby growers.

Local items are often labeled, said Danielle Williams, an employee whose family has owned Ward’s since 1951. But you can always ask employees what products are local, she said.

Citizen’s Co-op, a member-owned grocery store with a “Local First” policy, will open downtown in April.

“We don’t need a bunch of diesel trucks belching fuel across the country when we can get food right here,” said Phil Kairalla, a local farmer and beekeeper who serves as the chair of the Co-op’s board of directors.

The store will focus not only on local food, but also on food grown in organic, environment-friendly and socially responsible ways. That means making sure all products are free from chemicals and genetic modification, and all producers are paid and treated fairly.

At Ward’s, Citizen’s Co-op and local restaurants, shoppers can check out Hogtown HomeGrown, a monthly newsletter that educates customers about what foods are in season and how to cook them.

3. Shop at farmers markets

Unlike buying food in a traditional store, where your money goes to distributors, packagers and processors, when you buy directly from farmers, the farmers keep more of every dollar spent.

Another benefit of buying from farmers markets is getting to know the person producing your food. Farmer John Steyer said concerned consumers can ask growers about issues like chemical use.

Garner said the food you buy from local sources might be organic even if it doesn’t say so.

“Most local farms operate organically even if they’re not certified,” she said.

At the market, some shoppers may be intimidated by unfamiliar foods, and Garner suggested talking to the growers about how to cook the item.

“They will be able to tell you how to prepare it to perfection,” she said.

There are four farmers markets in Gainesville and more in the nearby towns of High Springs and Micanopy. The times and places of every market can be found on the Gainesville Farm Fresh website.

4. Join a CSA

Members of a Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA, “subscribe” to a farmer by paying a set price for weekly shares of the harvest from November through June.

“CSAs are wonderful because farmers are guaranteed income and can grow what they need to grow,” said Stefanie Samara Hamblen, the creator of Hogtown HomeGrown.

She said consumers might be forced to experiment with different foods because they have less choice in the food they receive, but this applies to buying foods in season, as well.

Hamblen said thinking differently about cooking and meal planning will help those who want to eat locally. Instead of planning a menu, making a list and then shopping for groceries, she said, do it in reverse. See what’s in season, then plan meals around what’s fresh.

5. Grow your own food

Gardening at home is an option for those with the time and space. People living in dorms and apartments can experiment with potted plants or try gardening at a community garden.

The city of Gainesville has five community gardens where residents can grow their own food. Call 352-393-8186 to see if any plots are available.

The University of Florida also rents plots to community members at its Organic Gardens Cooperative. For more information, call Ginny Campbell at 352-378-6108.

Scott Edmundson relaxes in a patch of soil with his two-year-old son, Kepler West Edmundson, at Swallowtail Farm’s Second Annual Spring Festival. Photo by Henry Taksier.

Top: Lily Garner, 6, uproots fresh carrots and offers them to passersby at Swallowtail Farm’s Second Annual Spring Festival, a “celebration of everything good and local.”  Above: Scott Edmundson relaxes in a patch of soil with his two-year-old son, Kepler West Edmundson, at the same festival on Swallowtail Farm. Photos by Henry Taksier.