A tale of two farmers-food markets and what it means

I love fresh food markets. I had a fruit, vegetable, and fish market near me growing up, the old Market in the Loop, in University City, Mo. To this day I remain a loyal supporter of local food and local businesses that sell fresh fruit and vegetables. Today, these markets are very much at the center of the national health discussion on nutrition, healthy food, obesity, and politics. So I decided to examine this issue using two examples in Seattle–one where I shop and the other where I mostly people watch and occasionally will buy some food. (Please go below for my photo essay of both venues.)

For  the last decade, the public health community increasingly has been focussing on how to increase fruit and vegetable consumption by Americans, improve Americans’ nutritional intake, and address the complex systems that are making this country the fattest on earth. Research has shown that Americans still do not consume the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, and government research is showing that lower-income consumers eat fewer fruits and vegetables than higher-income consumers do.

According to research by public health experts, communities that lack full-service grocery stores and neighborhood food markets have less access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Since 2009, the CDC, in its list of strategies to reduce obesity, has called for making healthier food choices available in “public service areas.” Specifically, the CDC says local governments can make healthier foods accessible through policy choices and offering vouchers that can be redeemed for healthy food choices. This is happening nationally at farmers markets, where technology to read food stamps, or EBT, cards (known today as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), is being made available to merchants so they can serve lower-income consumers.

The Food Research Action Center (FRAC) has called for increasing participation in SNAP; improving those benefit levels so lower-income persons can afford adequate diets, including healthier foods; promoting fruit and vegetable purchases with SNAP benefits, which is taking place; and boosting the access to healthy and affordable foods in “underserved communities.” To that end, the CDC is making available more than $100 million (chump change, really, when you compare that to funding made available to corporate farms through the U.S. Farm Bill) to promote policy, systems, and environmental change through Community Transformation Grants (CTG).  This is designed to “to reduce chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes” — all major health issues that are also bankrupting our health care system and treasury.

A 2010 White House report on childhood obesity notes that in the last three decades, prices for fruits and vegetables rose twice as fast as the price of carbonated drinks, and a bump in the cost of fruits and vegetables relative to less healthy foods can reduce consumers’ desire to buy fruits and veggies, leading to unhealthy Americans. Pricing is of course a key issue impacting purchasing decision of lower-income consumers, among other factors. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research found that a 10% discount in the price of fruits and vegetables would increase the amount purchased by 6-7%.

So, yes, price matters a lot, along with access. Where I live (Seattle), the Farmers Market Alliance claims “the vast majority” of the fruits, vegetables, herbs, and berries are the same price or less expensive at farmers markets, especially with organics, than at conventional grocery stores (QFC, Fred Meyer, Safeway, etc.). The organization further claims that the quality and variety of its produce exceeds the quality sold at the chain grocery stores. The farmers market movement is truly national in scope, and a network of nonprofits like the Philadelphia based Food Trust is partnering with local farmers to promote farmers markets in underserved areas.

The Atlantic in May 2011 published an article noting that farmers markets were less expensive than supermarkets and provided better food. The article challenges the criticism that farmers markets catered to mostly wealthy white snobs who drive Subarus and Prius’s, and it argues that no formal research supports “this widely accepted contention, and the few studies that have been conducted call its veracity into question.” Of course the movement to support “local food production” and farmers markets has both national and local critics, including conservative bloggers, who call it a trendy cause. Some have blasted the use of electronic EBT card readers as a wasteful expense ($1,200 to purchase, $50 to lease).

The closest market to my home, about one mile away, called the Ballard Farmers Market, most definitely is more expensive than grocery stores and independently owned produce and grocery stores where I also shop in Seattle. Its clientele, based on my many trips there, is decidedly and stereotypically upscale, white or Asian (I’d say 90% white, 5% Asian, 5% other), and professional. I haven’t conducted a poll to actually verify this, but this corner of Seattle is not that diverse, and it is close to a neighborhood where homes fetch $600,000 and where condominiums are sprouting on many major intersections. No, I can’t afford to buy anything there, with the exception of a good bargain, like beets today ($3 a bushel of three). I have bought a few apples and heads of lettuce and other veggies in the past, but not much else — not salmon, not herbs, nothing. For my part, I grow some of my own food, pick some (like berries or tree fruit that abounds in Seattle), and wish I caught salmon like I did in Alaska.

I don’t begrudge the vendors there for selling produce at a higher price point, which shuts out low-income persons like me. (I may have a few university degrees, but I am by all measures very low-income now.) As one food blogger and jam-making blogger from San Francisco notes: “People selling at the markets have priced their products according to a wide range of criteria. First, many of the farmers who sell at markets are smaller operations than those who sell to grocery stores. Maybe they have 10 acres of land compared to 60 or 100 or 200 acres and rely almost exclusively on markets for income.”

I try to support my favorite produce store in Seattle, called McPherson’s Fruit and Produce, in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. First, their selection is usually excellent–fresh but not organic food in season. I find their produce is fresher than most grocery stores. Their vegetables and fruits are always cheaper than any grocery store I visit, including stores with hefty supply chain advantages like Costco. They cater to a full spectrum of clients, and that clientele is more low-income and more ethnically diverse than what is found in Ballard. (Beacon Hill is much more diverse ethnically.) I’m as likely to see Hispanic, African American, immigrant, and Asian-American shoppers as I am those who look like me (white). However, McPherson’s is located about seven miles by car from my home, while the Ballard Farmer’s Market is a mile away, making it impossible for me to bike to Beacon Hill, and there are some serious hill and traffic issues. So I drive there, but usually combining outings and errands with a stop. I have been shopping at McPherson’s for years, during my previous and current stays in Seattle. I do not know if their model can be replicated in other cities–unique private owners, a great location on well-travelled road, proximity to distributors, an ability to attract shoppers with and without cars.

Perhaps instead of throwing all of our support into the farmers market craze, more can be done to help smaller businesses and producers. This would require the proverbial “upstream intervention.” For instance, our government tells people to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, but is not providing the supports through federal legislation to make that possible. The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity notes that by 2020, the country needs to boost the availability of fruits and vegetables by 70%, or 450 pounds per person a year (that’s an enormous pile of food by the way). It is not doing that now because of our dated, bloated Farm Bill.

Such upstream actions, to grow the intake of healthy food consumption, in a policy sense, have the biggest bang for the buck, compared to downstream actions. Many wise and smart persons who follow food and nutrition issues have long said that the pork-laden, decades-old Farm Bill needs to be overhauled to create true change. New York Times food blogger Mark Bittman notes “agricultural subsidies have helped bring us high-fructose corn syrup, factory farming, fast food, a two-soda-a-day habit and its accompanying obesity, the near-demise of family farms, monoculture and a host of other ills.” The farm bill, up for renewal in 2012, offers an agriculture subsidy worth $30 billion, $5 billion of which is direct payments to farmers. Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation even blast this.

Bittman suggests that a revised Farm Bill–which I believe no one involved in policy-making believes can occur in the current political climate–should support farmers who at the moment now grow unsubsidized fruits, vegetables, and beans, while giving incentives to “monoculture commodity farmers to convert some of their operations to these more desirable foods.” This is food that would make us healthier compared to factory raised meat fed on subsidized grain, which is what our current system promotes. Bittman also calls for incentives to help medium-sized farms, those big enough to supply local supermarkets but small enough to care what and how they grow, compete better with corporate agribusiness.

Personally, I would love to see both farmers markets and McPherson’s in most neighborhoods in most cities. Right now, I’m going to stick with shopping primarily at McPherson’s, despite the inconvenience. And I’ll keep growing a garden where ever I live, too.

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