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Etiquette for children at Farmers Markets

Nov 2009

Wondering what people think ... Last week at a local Farmers Market I was choosing vegies from a bin when a small child reached in and started handling one after another. I said in a gentle voice, "No honey, don't touch" and she stopped without any fuss. A moment later, a woman turned around and said, "Were you speaking to my child? She can touch whatever she wants; that's how we learn about food." A very brief exchange ensued in which the mom announced huffily that we weren't in MY kitchen but in an OPEN market - as though that made everything up for grabs, so to speak. A minute later, the dad chimed in, "I guess she doesn't have kids" - as though their child raising practices are shared by all parents. Clearly they were not open to a difference of opinion or courteous discussion.

I'm hugely in favor of teaching all kids from an early age to appreciate where food comes from and engaging their senses of wonder over color, smell, feel, taste. But isn't it common sense - as well as good hygienic practice, especially these days - to teach kids some restraint in handling food that is not going to their own homes? If mommy or daddy selects the fruit, or helps the child select it, bag it, and play with it at home, fine. But should we encourage our children to "press the flesh" in collective settings without supervision or any limits? I know, adults can have germy hands too, and I too handle fresh foods that I don't ultimately buy - but this strikes me as the kind of solipsistic parenting that puts "my child, our family" above civic concern for the larger community. Wonder what others thinkC" Just call me, I guess, Greengrouser


I never answer these, but this one struck a cord. I think it depends on the veggies he was touching. We all handle tomatoes, peaches, etc. to see which are ripe - putting some back and taking others - so I definitely don't think it's a hygiene question. I would be more concerned with my child squeezing and ruining the fruit, but potatoes? Squash? Onions? I say let the kid touch. He wasn't lawn bowling with them. This is exactly the kind of experience I want my child to have - tactile, visceral, 'real life', and it doesn't harm anyone. I *hope* everyone goes home and washes their fruits and veggies. That said, I would never have responded the way the mother/father did to you - that's what strikes me as rude. My child (thus far!) has been relatively well behaved and is pretty young, so I haven't encountered side line parenting yet, but it always baffles me when other people try and discipline others' children if a) someone isn't in physical danger or b) someone isn't in extreme emotional danger. You said it yourself, this was an example of ''difference of opinion'', so why assert yours over the parents? Of course, if the kid is reaching for a snarling dog, ''Don't touch,'' seems justified, but veggies? Not so much. Having said all the above, I wouldn't have been offended by your comment, and would have left it alone, but you wrote in, so my two cents Anonymous
I feel for you Green Grouser! I don't like little kids curious, sweet but dirty hands all over my stuff -- and I would have also wished that the little girl did not handle all the food that way. So I feel for you. But I also have a 6 year old. And I know that, unless it is an issue of immediate safety/danger, that I feel very agitated anytime an adult stranger takes it on themselves to discipline my child directly, without involving me (this could range from telling my child to speak more quietly, move more slowly, don't touch, sit still, etc). For me, I don't think its an issue of ''''my child, our family'' above civic concern''. I'm not thinking at that level. Its more often a quick, strong, irrational, emotional feeling of being protective/threatened that this stranger will or has ''hurt'' my kid in some fashion (ranging from making my kid feel scared, to actually being strange/truly aggressive). Not saying its rational. And I am not excusing the little girl's food handling, or the parents response to you. More trying to explain that when you are in a grey area of values/preferences I think its treacherous business to directly discipline children that are strangers to you, without involving their parents. Better to say ''honey, where is your mommy?'' and talk to mommy directly... I want to broker adult stranger's relationships with my kiddo
It is indeed an etiquette issue - not a health/sanitation issue. Of course the food will be washed, but that's not the point. It is simple courtesy to minimize the handling of food for sale, and that is accomplished by having ONLY potential purchasers touch ONLY the items they are seriously considering buying. It's not a tactile learning experience for the general public, child or adult. In Europe, even buyers don't touch the produce - you point to what you want, and the seller chooses it and gives it to you. That said, Miss Manners says that it isn't polite to point out others' rudeness, which is what you did -- however gently. Of course, the child's parents were even MORE rude to you. I love their comment about their child needing to learn about vegetables by touching them at the farmer's market - and I wish you would have said, "oh, I'm so sorry sweetie, I didn't realize your parents didn't provide vegetables for you at home. This must be very exciting for you to see your first tomato!" Being sweet is often the best tactic.
Well...I personally don't think it is a big deal for a child to handle several pieces of fruit or vegetables as long as they are not puncturing, biting, or purposefully throwing/smashing the food on the ground. If the parents are allowing these children to purposefully destroy the food, then they should buy it, but just touching the food is not a big deal. I think it is ok for children to touch food as much as it is Ok for an adult. For all you know, the piece of fruit you bought might have previously been touched by an adult w/ a contagious viral infection on their hands.

I know i am very picky about which pieces of fruit or veggie I buy, especially with the cost of food today. I will generally touch at least 5-10 tomatoes, oranges, or avocados until I find a few I like. Sometimes, I pick up a veggie and decide I don't want it at all. Occasionally, when I pick up a piece, several more will fall on the ground. Then I have to pick them up and put them back in the bin or stack. Sometimes, when they fall, a piece may get bruised. I'm sure this happens to everyone, and the stores know this is just the nature of how produce is handled, and the cost of doing business. I am a very tactile person and I like to examine in detail what I purchase w/ my hands...and not just food, but clothing, linens etc. I assume you wash your food when you get it home, correct? veggie handler


You are right: lots of people are going to be touching the fruit before buying it, including you. A lot of the stuff we eat has pesticides and preservatives and all kinds of stuff. What is your point, that if the kid touches the fruit it will have a few more germs?

Unless the kid is doing something truly wrong: sweeping the floor with the brocoli, biting on the fruit and putting it back on the shelf, etc., you have no point in your argument aside from the fact that you believe your values apply to everyone else. I remember once going to a restaurant with my little son. I swear he was making no noise; but this woman kept on piercing us with her angry looks. I guess that in her opinion children should be looked in the house and should not share the spaces other adults are in. This reminds me of old England; it was immoral to be flaunting the fact that you had had sex by walking in public pregnant. I guess children came from Paris to those people. But I digress: we need to relax, live and let live. Let's lose the anal attitude, please. Pro-tolerance for everyone


I do not agree in ''reprimanding'' a child that is not yours in public (or any other setting, unless your own home), unless their behavior endangers their lives or physical safety. It's a farmers market. The whole point is to feel, press, smell and taste the food. There are adults who do more handling with dirty hands than some kids. I've seen adults put their fingers in sample bins, while my son uses the tongs. I've seen adults sneeze right over the open veggie bin where my daughter always sneezes into her elbow. I recently saw a vendor at my local FM pick his nose then handle someones food when weighing it. But above it all, you're asking for it the minute you tell another persons child how to handle themselves in public. anon
My family has a ''look with your eyes, not with your hands'' rule. The kid is a very touchy-feely type so this can be a challenge, but it's worked. I allow the kid to try anything that's been cut up and set out for trying; if I see something particularly beautiful or so rare we've never had it (or if it's been years), I'll buy a small sample or we'll talk about it and how it's different from what we've tried before. We definitely discuss the quality of what we buy - is it wilted, cracked, bruised, moldy, wrinkled, etc. (I've been known to buy bruised apples and cut the spots off... I'll never buy a bruised pear again!). This active participate leads to helping in the kitchen and trying new foods one bite at a time... which has led to culinary experiments like brussels sprouts (no!), strong aged Spanish cheese (maybe) and frogs legs (yes!)

I don't think you were out of line at all. It takes a village and maybe if they hear it from a few more people at different times, the message may sink in. I'm sure a lot of produce is lost to little hands that drop it, or squeeze too hard.

btw I've also instructed the kid NEVER to touch anyone else's car, shopping cart, purse, or backpack. This takes repeated reminders, but no car alarms go off. With this hands off policy, there's no confusion or suspicion of ill intent (no matter how innocent one might be, it can look bad). ... hands off and head held high


While I guide my own children to keep their hands to themselves at farmers markets, I wouldn't go so far as to instruct another child to do the same. Trust me, I do not hesitate to give firm guidance to other people's children if they are causing harm (in whatever setting, not just farmers markets), but when it comes to the specific situation about which you have posted, I'd have to say that it seems like you were in fact putting your beliefs on that child. As you said yourself, adults handle food that they do not ultimately purchase. Why are a child's hands any different? I don't let my children carelessly handle food at the market because they have no means of actually purchasing it, therefore, they have no business touching it because it is not theirs. It is a matter of respect, not a matter of hygiene. Teaching guidelines for respect is the parents' business because it is a subjective matter--that is, some people hold stricter values than others. If the reason you instructed the child was based purely on hygiene, then I think your comment was hypocritical insomuch as even you touch food you don't buy. If your intent was more about teaching respect, then you probably crossed the line because people hold different values in this instance. If it makes you feel better, I wouldn't have minded if you had said what you did to one of my children (assuming they appeared to be unsupervised)! Tracy
You should do what you think is best at the Farmer's Market, but if it were my 4 year old son squeezing vegies etc, I would WANT you to say something to him. Kids hands are generally not as clean as adult hands, and they don't know how to touch a fruit without bruising it. That said, I draw a strong distinction between a gentle, reminder not to touch, and a long lecture about it. I think the way you handled the situation, was perfect. I wish there were more adults that would gently say something to my son when he was misbehaving. It takes a villiage
Just what is the ''civic concern for the larger community'' that you are so worried about? How is the child's touching the produce any more threatening than when we adults handle it? As long as she isn't damaging the produce, then I don't see a problem. Little kids learn by doing, and she was copying what everyone around her was doing. another vegie handler
Unfortunately I don't go to farmer's markets much, but I think rules for handling communal food at markets, stores and parties should all be the same for kids: don't touch it unless you are going to eat it/buy it; and if you touch it, it's yours. Yes adults handle the fruit to check for ripeness, bad spots, etc. but we (presumably) know how to do so without dropping or damaging the goods. Kids can and should learn this from hands-on, supervised instruction of their adults. It doesn't sound like this was the case with the kid you spoke with. Otherwise they get the samples handed to them and need to keep their fingers to themselves. If people can't be responsible for their kids' behavior, they need to find childcare instead of bringing them along. mom of a 4 and a 6 year old
I completely agree with your sentiments regarding children and the limits that should be placed on them in public markets. Yes, a farmer's market is a great place to learn about food and where it comes from. No, that learning experience need not and should not include giving a child free rein to touch all of the fruits and vegetables. The other mother feels that this is not ''your kitchen.'' Well, she (and her child) are not in her own private vegetable garden. If she wants her child to touch food, have her child help pick out the food that they are going to buy.

The only thing that I would second guess you on is the (gentle) scolding of the other child. I believe that negative comments directed toward other children are not appropriate unless they are hurting someone else or are in danger themselves (''Please do not kick me'' or ''Be careful not to cut yourself''). In your situation, I think that you should have spoken to the vendor and asked if he/she has a policy on handling food, and if so, if that can be conveyed to customers. I would think (and hope) that vendors would police their stands so that actual paying customers are not grossed out by someone handling the food excessively. Will be double and triple washing my farmer's market food from now on


I don't think this is about touching food or learning about food. This is about a stranger (you) deciding to reprimand someone else's child (however ''gently'') about a personal pet peeve that you have, not a culturally accepted practice. That kid was not in any danger, nor was she causing harm which to me are the only two reasons a stranger should take it upon herself to parent someone else's kid. If it bothers you that much, say something to the stand owner. While I don't think I would have been as rude to you as these particular parents, had you said something similar to my kid, I certainly would have been offended by your remark. anon
Dear Greengrouser, While your description does sound like the kid needed more supervision around issues of how to interact with the food at a farmers' market, I think your attempt may have been better received if it were directed to the parents (I know they may well have been just as saucy). For myself, I know someone telling my child ''No,'' especially a stranger, might well irritate me, as we try to use the more constructive 'positive discipline' approach: telling her what we DO want, not what we DON'T want. (example: ''Don't think of an elephant.'' ...oh, wait, you just did. Okay, so how bout: ''Think of a giraffe.'' Oh, you did. But it was what I was asking...hmmm)

So anyway, I grew up that the green grocer didn't let anyone touch the produce. You'd tell him what you wanted and how much, and he'd bag it for you. It's still like that today (in Italy!). But really, either go to the parents or tell the booth owner that you're creeped out by kids overhandling the food. If he's worried about losing customers he may write a sign or take to talking to families that approach the booth or whatever. Good luck, and thank you for even being willing to ask the community our opinions about this incident. I respect your viewpoint also. Squeeze Your Dolly Please


I would have kept that comment to myself. I really don't feel you had a right to discipline another person's child. anon
Of course I don't want anyone of any age squeezing the $400 peaches or tomatoes at the farmer's market. But I have to tell you, as someone who has been a farmer and worked on several different small farms harvesting produce, you should chill out and just wash your veggies when you get home.

When I was out in the field and I had to pee, do you think I walked the 10 minutes each way back to the farmhouse to use the facilities and wash my hands in hot water while singing Happy Birthday two times through? No, my friend, I peed right there in the field, ok 10 feet from the field and then continued harvesting the cherry tomatoes that we placed directly into baskets and took to the farmers market unwashed so as to preserve freshness and prevent mold. I'm a woman, but think of the majority of those harvesting your food, men, who have to hold their John Henry to pee and then keep on harvesting...

Also, you know birds, they fly around and poop right on the fruits and veggies too, and that doesn't get washed off either, just flicked off for appearances. Ok, some produce is washed before market, but not with soap or hot water.

Additionally, when the farmer is sick, the tomatoes will not wait until she is better to be harvested. They must be picked when they are ripe, cold or no cold. This is the reality of agriculture. Don't get me started on the free range rodents...

Life isn't sanitary. -From a farmer who knows


I think you are being ridiculous. The child was just exploring some brightly colored objects, that were probably at her height, and practically inviting her to hold them in her hands. Hopefully you are smart enough to wash your fruits and veggies when you get home. I'm sure they have been in worse hands. The parents (rightly so) sound upset because you were policing their daughter. They might have been a little unfriendly to you, but that being said, many parents would have had a similar reaction. policing isn't parenting
I am with you! I teach my children whenever we are out that we don't touch things unless we are buying them. Farmer's Markets, Starbucks, Macy's...whatever it is all the same to me. Everyone deserves to buy the freshest product possible...so we should all keep our hands to ourselves unless we are seriously considering purchasing.

Drives me nuts to see anyone (adult or kid) with their hands all over everything. Perplexed too


I think it was perfectly appropriate for you to speak kindly to the little one and express your preference. It seems like the parents disagree both about your right to direct their child and about your feeling that people shouldn't handle food unless they are planning to buy it. I always tell kids (nicely) if they are doing something I don't think they should be doing and a parent is not nearby (or is oblivious)--I feel like this is part of being a village and contributing to the upbringing of all. Some parents don't like it. Others do. As far as the veggie-mauling I don't feel strongly about it one way or another, but it is good for the child and the parents to realize different people feel differently about this behavior. best wishes
I have a 4 years old son who wants to touch everything and i think the parents were out of line. While i agree touching is an important part of learning, it seems to me that learning boundaries is important as well. You simply cannot touch things that are not yours without asking. period. My son touches everything and i constantly explains that no we can't do that. We even talk about it before we go in the store and it's getting better. And if someone makes a comment the way you make yours i really appreciate it because it reinforces the concept in a very appropriate way. Plus, this particular winter of flu and h1n1 scares it seems we should be sure NOT to touch everything especially if we don't wash our hands in between. anon
Although the comment that ''she must not have kids'' strikes me as ridiculous, I would say that your standards seems ridiculous as well. Adults are constantly handling multiple pieces of produce at the FMs, trying to find just the right ones to bring home. Why distinguish for children? If you are concerned about germs (you brought that up in your post), then wash your produce when you get it home. And yes, I agree that it is totally out of line for you to speak to someone else's child and tell them what they can and can't do. The child was not endangering herself or others, and so it is not appropriate for you to speak to her. relax already
No, dude. That's not cool to touch all the food. My girls and i shop the farmers market every week, and i tell them not to touch the food we're not buying. It's just not cool. But, truthfully, neither is telling other people's kids what to do. I hold the same guidelines as you, but would still react strongly if i heard you telling my kids what to do. If it's your market stand, fine. It's your stuff until someone buys it. Otherwise, keep your morals and standards, whether well intentioned or not, to yourself and your own kids. Or ask the parents to have them stop, if you really feel so righteous about it. a fellow marketeer
IMHO it is not your responsibility to teach ''lessons'' to anyone. If the vendor does not want the child touching the goods then that is their business. anon
I have kids. I don't want to spend all that money on produce from the farmer's market that some kid has poked their fingernail into as they were 'learning' about food. Do they also let her 'learn' about loaves of bread? Can't even wash those! Those people are psycho, and the people running the stalls probably hate that attitude because they lose product. Maybe you should have differed to them? give your kid some boundaries
I read your question and thought to myself, would I tell another adult at the market not to touch the food? No. Never. It is true that part of what I appreciate about the farmer's market is that less hands have touched the food before it arrives to be sold, as it comes directly from the farms rather than via a bunch of additional handlers. I personally rinse all my food before I eat it, even packaged greens from the store that say they are pre-washed. If a child, or anyone else, touches the food at the market, it's simple enough to rinse it at home before I prepare and eat it. Like you, I would prefer that a bunch of hands don't touch the food I'm about to eat, but would tell you to back off too if you tried dictating to me how I or my child choose to interact with the food at the market before purchasing it. The only time I would feel comfortable asking a child or adult to not touch something they weren't taking would be if they were touching cut fruit or other samples, or baked good and similar things that can't be rinsed off before eating. Compared to what you don't see happening to your food before or once it arrives at the grocery store, a child or two touching the produce at the farmer's market is hardly a community health issue.

What you are describing is fear. And, for better or for worse, it's your fear and no one else's. The parents you disagreed with do not fear that their child is contaminated or that other people touching the food she is going to touch have contaminated. They were in line asking you to own your fear and not spread it to their child. no say on who touches the produce


You're going to get your undies in a bunch over a child touching produce at the farmer's market? Do you tell the adult next to you to stop touching the produce, too? Use a vegetable rinse, or if you are that afraid of contracting cooties, then a drop of bleach in water will kill the germs. And yes, you really need to be sensitive when reprimanding someone else's child. If the parent is there, it is first the parent's responsibility. But I clearly do not see that the child did anything to warrant admonition. Grownup Fruit Squeezer
Hi, your post actually addresses two issues: 1) etiquette for people (not just children) in farmers markets and 2) are we allowed to speak to children that aren't ours?

1. I agree that children shouldn't randomly touch all the foods in the farmers markets, the same way I don't let them touch all the stuff at stores. I agree that learning restraint, not passing on germs, teaching children to be careful of things that aren't yours, etc. is important. My children don't touch but have tasted where it's appropriate.

2. I have once before spoken with a child that wasn't mine (who was accidentally throwing cherry pastry filling on my child as she attempted to litter the street with her trash) and I was physically and verbally attacked by the mother (I in no way spoke to the child in any inappropriate manner but asked her to be careful as she threw cherries on my son). I am now extremely cautious to even say anything to a child who is doing something inappropriate and that makes me sad. I'm totally happy when others correct or guide my child as I believe he should know the rules apply even if Mom isn't right there watching him. I believe it takes a village and luckily many people I meet agree. but the ones who don't can be kind of scary. in agreement


You did overstep. It was not your place. And the child's behavior was fine. anon
I think everyone over reacted in this situation. From what I could tell, it seems that your concerns were mostly about germs, not food damage. I've seen adults at market press every avocado so hard leaving large indentations and ruining what could have been a perfectly edible fruit. Squeezing fruits and veggies too hard, or reckless handling that damages the produce would concern me much more than germs left by big or little hands. I assume you wash your produce before consuming. On the other hand, the kids parents were overly defensive and even seemed hostile. It sounds as if you were polite and spoke gently to their child. The parents could have easily brushed it off. My sense is that every one was just a little on edge that day and made a mountain out of a mole hill. two wrongs don't make a right
Whether it's good etiquette or not, I don't think it was your place to tell a stranger's child what to do (especially when no one was going to get hurt). You should just keep your thoughts to yourself when it comes to such trivial things. Anon
Your produce has been in the dirt and been handled by countless adults and children before you buy it. In fact, I was at the Berkeley farmers' market just yesterday with a cold. I recommend that you wash or peel your food before you prepare it. Kevin
Well, it was interesting to see the different opinions on this one! I was surprised by the lack of consensus. I was particularly surprised by the number of people who recommended that a concerned bystander talk to the parents instead of the kid. While I see the appeal of that idea, I gotta say, that would rub me the wrong way entirely. When someone tells my kid to behave themselves in a friendly way, that's usually okay by me, even if I don't exactly agree with comment. I appreciate us all looking out for each other and lending a hand. But if someone told me to rein in my kid, I would take that as a criticism of my parenting. I can't really imagine how someone could suggest that I tell my kid to stop handling fruit in a way that would not seriously irk me. However, in the spirit of community harmony, I will try to be understanding if one of you gives me your parenting input. Perhaps a general chilling out and recognizing of legitimate differences of opinion would aid this whole endeavor. Yet Another Opinion
Not everybody agrees that you did the ''wrong'' thing by gently correcting another child. While none of us want strangers correcting our kids, many of us who are responsible parents, good neighbors and good community members are happy to hear feedback about our kids. Others are not, and are very defensive when anybody even hints anything to us (or our kids). I also disagree strongly that just because there are nasty parents in our vicinity, that no one should say anything to a kid who is out of line. Many parents aren't paying any attention to their kids' behavior, and if they aren't, or if they aren't close enough to their kid to be able to direct their behavior (or they are otherwise unavailable for feedback), I will mention something to the kid. And I don't feel bad about it despite the nasty looks I sometimes get. I figure the kids need the feedback that their behavior is out of line, even if their parents don't notice or don't care, and the parents need the feedback too! Sure, live and let live. But a kid doesn't need to be in grave danger to be reminded that his behavior is inappropriate. There's lots of interpretation about what's ''appropriate'' behavior. But it's not necessary to err on the side of letting a wilder kid and looser parents dominate the community. None of us were there, so we don't know whether you overreacted or whether we would have been grateful for you mentioning something to the kid. And the parent's nasty response may be their version of ''live and let live'' or they may have been having a bad day. Doesn't mean you're right or wrong. But I don't want you to get the impression that everybody thinks you're out of line b/c you said something to a kid you perceived as being unruly. BTW, I welcome feedback about my kid. I'm lucky in that she's very well behaved and we rarely get nasty feedback. Sometimes that causes me to remind her to behave better, and sometimes it causes me to suggest that the person back off. So don't buy the idea that you're not allowed to say something to somebody else's kid; but think about whether it's necessary and appropriate, and don't be surprised if people don't agree with you. (and btw, I think some kids do handle food too much, but some are just gently checking it out like you would to buy it.)
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