Is Locavorism for Rich People Only?

James McWilliams is an historian at Texas State University and author of the new book Just Food. He has blogged here before, critiquing locavorism and is back with a series of posts on farmers’ markets. This is the last of his three guest posts.

Do Farmers’ Markets Really Strengthen Local Communities? Part Three
by James McWilliams
A Guest Post

In my last post on this topic, I suggested that local food systems are not necessarily environmentally sound food systems.

“The burden exclusively hits the ‘traditionally marginalized’ people whose primary concerns in life do not involve securing heirloom tomatoes cultivated within a 100-mile radius of their domains.”

I also suggested that, if this were true, then we’d have to entertain the possibility that the community cohesion that develops around shared pride in sustainable food production is similarly suspect.

Of course, this is only a possibility. I have no numbers to draw on. Oftentimes, we have strong evidence that a farm is well deserving of a sustainable gold star. Many small farmers who practice an impressive level of transparency alleviate any lurking concerns about unsavory practices. In so doing, they ostensibly lay the basis for community development around shared pride in local ecological sustainability. It’s not always this way, but it’s likely quite common.

Such success, however, only raises another problem for the proposition that local food fosters a tighter community. Sustainably produced local food is not accessible by all. In general, only the elite few with the time and material resources to capitalize on such environmental munificence have the time and money to benefit from transparently sustainable farms. As a result, the preconditions are inadvertently established for something that generally tends not to bind diverse communities into a cozy whole, but to fragment them: exclusivity.

Patricia Allen, of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California-Santa Cruz, has pondered this problem extensively. She shows that when efforts to attain community food security (for the poor) are entrusted to local food suppliers, the results are not always the strengthening of community bonds, but rather their fraying. Allen bravely questions the entire premise that communities “will make better decisions about food systems,” noting how it all depends on the shaky premise that there’s “fluid cooperation among groups with quite different interests.”

Think about it: if there’s one thing you do not see at the farmers’ market, it’s socio-economic diversity (although there is evidence that markets are becoming more ethnically diverse). Localizing the food supply, in other words, automatically means that a small group of people will have exclusive influence over what the rest of the community has access to. Such power can alienate and even anger “the community.” “[T]he presumption that everyone can participate is a magician’s illusion,” writes Allen.

What often follows, as a result, are local food systems in which a self-elected cohort of decision makers promotes a subjective vision of what a healthy, virtuous, and environmentally sound diet should look like. The rest just get what they’re given, stay away, or resist in ways that undermine the process of community development. Again, Allen says, “The evidence is that localism is anything but liberatory for those traditionally marginalized.” Culinary localism can thus backfire on the full community it’s supposed to improve.

A couple of other considerations underscore this argument. When the infrastructure of food production and distribution shrinks to accommodate members of a local population, when middlemen are axed from the supply chain, certain kinds of jobs disappear. Perhaps it goes without saying that these jobs are not employment opportunities that the privileged clientèle of the farmers’ markets are going to miss. Instead, the burden exclusively hits the “traditionally marginalized” people whose primary concerns in life do not involve securing heirloom tomatoes cultivated within a 100-mile radius of their domains.

Again, Allen has something insightful to say on this:

I participated in a conference session in which the leaders of a food security project were proud of its success in reducing imports of food from outside the locality. They were uninterested, however, in the negative effect this localization might have on those who had depended on the previous arrangements.

A final paradox: in a sense, any community with an activist base seeking to localize the food supply is also a community that’s undermining diversity. Although we rarely consider the market influences that make community diversification possible, a moment’s reflection reveals a strong tie between cultural diversity and market access. Critics of globalization argue (often with ample evidence) that global forces undermine the world’s range of indigenous cultures — wiping out vernacular habits, wisdom, and languages. They overlook, however, how the material manifestations of diversity are brought to us by globalization.

Localization, by contrast, specifies what is and is not acceptable within an arbitrary boundary. In this sense, it delimits diversity. Anyone who doubts this claim should imagine what the culinary map of New York City would look like without open access to globally far-flung producers. It’s only because globally sourced distributors are able to provide specialized ingredients that Harlem, Chinatown, and Little Italy are such vibrant emblems of urban, culinary, and cultural diversity.

The cultural elitism that tinges culinary localism is by no means inherent. Still, it’s hard to say that it’s not there. And however ingrained it may be, such exclusivity is hardly a precondition for community cohesion. Theoretically, this persistent exclusivity could change, but for now it seems as if the locavore movement might very well be alienating many American consumers who might otherwise be willing to think about, and act upon, the agricultural problems that weigh so heavily upon us.

In any case, it’s just a thought.


Sounds like you came to a conclusion and then created an argument to support it.

I have no doubt that local organic farmers market produce in new york city is expensive, that doesn't mean that farmers markets in general don't provide affordable food.

Arguing that buying locally puts middlemen out of jobs leads is like arguing that we should go back to riding in carriages to support the poor buggy whip makers.

At the farmers market I attend(one of many in Madison WI) there are many small farmers from diverse backgrounds that sell high quality produce for reasonable prices(as cheap or cheaper than the large grocery store). The farmers get a living wage price for their product and I get fresh food within walking distance from my house.

Without the market these farmers would not have an outlet to sell their products and would not be able to compete against the agribusiness supply chain.

Farmers markets may not work well for a place like New York City, but they work well for a lot of farmers and regular folks regardless of what economists might assume.



I'm no expert on this, but I've observed anecdotally here in RI that there is increasing socioeconomic diversity at our farmers' markets - helped in no small part, I'm sure, by the fact that most of the vendors have a mechanism in place to accept funds from SNAP/EBT.

Sarah H.

I dunno about this. I go to the Hollywood Farmer's Market in LA on Sunset and Vine every Sunday. I see everyone shopping there, from A-list celebrities to rich organic-food-loving moms to hippie folks to homeless people. And they accept WIC and EBT: if that's not locavorism for the poor, I don't know what is. Plus the South Central Farmer's Cooperative (who grows very delicious produce!) is run by/supports/trains/provides easy access to fresh organic local produce for people in lower-income inner-city communities.


First, if economies of scale dictate that locavorism is more labor-intensive than industrial food supply-lines, how could it hurt a "traditionally marginalized" labor force in a community in the long run? You can't argue both sides of this coin.

Second, if I'm a rich guy and I want to spend $0.50 on a vegetable, and another $0.50 for that vegetable to be sustainable, healthy, local and anything else I want it to be, rather than spending it on a second vegetable, what's wrong with that? Yes, a lot of "previous arrangements" are going to be disrupted, but that's the nature of progress. You can't possibly argue that traffic lights are a bad thing because they put traffic cops in unemployment lines. I think it's a good sign whenever "rich" people in the country want to pay for better goods instead of more goods. Critics of locavorism should stick to the arguments that it isn't really better in the way we want it to be. Not that it's somehow morally wrong to disrupt the status quo.



I've heard this argument a lot, that locavorism is expensive and its unfair to expect that most people will have the time and/or money to partake. But I think that ignores a large part of the push towards eating local and sustainable foods. As a country, we subsidize large farm conglomerates, a lot of which don't produce what we would consider "food" and as a result, processed and non-local food is cheaper and easier to get. But those of us that can afford to eat local can push up the demand for those products, and based on the ideas of supply and demand (I'll admit, I'm a little fuzzy on this since I only had one college econ class) that will drive the price down which will make those items more affordable and help to flip our model of which farms to subsidize. For myself at least, the idea is not to demean people who are not able to afford sustainable and local products, but to increase the demand for those products over highly processed and packaged ones so that eventually, the cheaper products will also be the more sustainable ones.


science minded

A good question. Having gone to a `local market" for the first time in a long while. I do see a change in perspective. I asked the price of one item- way beyond what I would have expected at a flee market and that I would be willing to pay. So- seems like the sellers may be a bit more savy-- that said-- bargains will be hard to find. And sellers may have to learn the lesson of greed--it's not only a rich man's disease..


"Such success, however, only raises another problem for the proposition that local food fosters a tighter community. Sustainably produced local food is not accessible by all. In general, only the elite few with the time and material resources to capitalize on such environmental munificence have the time and money to benefit from transparently sustainable farms."

Would not this indicate that we should have economic policies that allows lower classes to participate in local markets; that is, in decent food? For example, a more compressed wage inequality. I guess that is the reason why in Europe lower classes eat healthier that the American equivalent.

Your argument seems to be: "only some people can profit from superb (local market) food; let's bring them down". It seems the right policy should be to expand them!


You really need to visit Barcelona, which has an amazing network of over 30 municipal markets, old-style, that offer everything and at affordable prices. People of all ilks shop there.

Moreover, we must examine what it means to be "local food." Spain is only the size of Texas, so many people consider any food grown in Spain to be "local." It's a relative term.

The idea is to cut down transportation costs so fewer trucks spew fewer fumes while getting me some delicious heirloom tomatoes.


I go the African People's Farmer's market in bed-stuy. Its pretty amazing, some of the things they grow locally.... in the neighborhood, and some things obviously come from far away places like Florida or Washington. Most of the produce is organic, but some of it isn't. The prices are ridiculous when compared to the city or even the closest Pioneer. Organic onions and potatoes for $0.49 per pound. (its on Nostrand and Jefferson.) There are also countless other programs that offer local organic and affordable food in poor neighborhoods in other cities across the country. Maybe these commentators should have read more about those efforts then just going to the Union Square farmers market.


I don't know about other cities, but here in Washington there is an active program that allows farmers markets to accept WIC and food aid debit cards, and I routinely see people of all ethnicities and income levels at several markets. Of course this only benefits those who have a market in their neighborhood, but they are expanding all the time. Several in DC have opened in areas with no nearby supermarket, where the "existing arrangements" for fresh produce consisted of a few, overpriced, nasty wilted vegetables at convenience stores. It is cheaper and easier to open a weekly farmers market than a supermarket. You are invited to visit the markets in the Salvadoran/Indian community of Langley Park, MD and the largely African-American Bloomingdale neighborhood of DC to see for yourself.


Farmers markets don't have to be caught in the middle of this socio-economic debate. Farmers markets are for fun, not for real provisioning, except perhaps for just a few consumers. Few, if any, farmers markets are going to prevent Giant or Whole Foods or Safeway from stocking what the larger neighborhood needs and wants. If I want to spend twice as much for a tomato as I might at Giant because I like the atmosphere of a farmers market, how does that prevent another person's access to more reasonably priced food?

If the real issue is the problem of certain people blocking more affordable food stores from locating in their neighborhoods, that a separate issue.


"Previous arrangements" usually suck overall for poor people; so we shouldn't feel too bad about changing them. Of course, we should always keep in mind how things will affect porr people, but poor people are getting screwed far worse by the system as is than they will ever be screwed by farmers' markets... (This is a silly debate--I feel like a Leninist debating a Trotskyist, or whatever, when neither of us has a chance of taking over the US...)


What paulwesterberg said, ditto.

Your arguments are like the arguments against organic food because it was expensive. Now you can hardly walk into a supermarket in the country and not find reasonably priced organics.

Plus, assuming the big oil crash comes, and it certainly looks like it to me, places with no local sources of food will be in big trouble.

What we also need to do is do away with the giant subsidies AgriBusiness gets, and either use that money to pay down the national debt or use it to encourage small farmers.

James Benson

I see what appears to be a lot of economic diversity at our local farmers' markets. I understand that what appears to me to be economic diversity may not be much more than anecdotal evidence, but the produce is certainly more affordable than that in our local supermarkets. Moreover these are not farmers' markets where the goods come from the wholesaler. I also don't see a lot of hard evidence cited in Dr. McWilliam's blog. The important question to me is whether local farmers make a better income without increasing costs for the customer, poor or affluent. Can there be a resulting negative impact on the middleman. Probably! Social and economic change never is uniformly beneficial. Nor do claims of strengthening communities through some particular social change often stand up to every examination. I am content to see affordable food grown locally sold directly to the consumers by the farmer and his or her family.


Richard Witty

The arguments sound ludicrous to me.

Lilly-white farmers markets suspect because black and latino farmers are scarce in the New York area?

Encourage people to grow their own over generations, and you'll see vibrant and prosperous local culture in living color.

Stuart Kendall

All hail the status quo, right? Any logic in defense of agri-business? Even if you are correct that a small group of locals end up controlling the food supply, isn't that better than a small group of (greedy) corporate moguls doing the same thing?

Why set up an extremist straw man? Reality is, has been, and will be somewhere in the middle. Why not do something useful and promote the middle path? Measured local eating with an eye on sustainable production...

Dogmatism isn't thought and it doesn't make for interesting rhetoric either.


Local farms provide benefits for all in providing open space that is typically quite beautiful in addition to producing food. That is free for all.

Many farmers markets that I have been to in San Diego and Boston accept food stamps. Why would they have big signs announcing such things if there were not people there who used food stamps?

A few weeks ago we bought 100 lbs of grass fed beef for $600. Yes, it requires a chest freezer, a big chunk of money at one time, or people to split it with. It was 45 lbs ground beef, 20 lbs stew meat, the rest was steaks, chops, and ribs.

We get 2-3 lbs of filleted fish per week from our fish co-op for $15 per week. Requires that you learn to fillet fish, or cook whole fish, but then you have the bones.

Our CSA includes reduced price shares for people who live in the town where it is located. Doing a comparison for the crops people got in 2008, people lost about $50 by belonging to the farm. This year, I am sure there will be a bigger loss due to getting about 10 lbs of tomatoes rather than about 50, but no one would go hungry with the shares that we got.

I know that my point is no more valid than yours and not supported by any more research than yours. There is something special about going to the farm each week to get my food. It is close enough to Boston that it is readily accessible by bus. Local food is not just for rich people.



One farmer's market I go to in Tucson not only accepts EBT/food stamp cards, but supports individual home gardeners ability to grow food for trade at the market. You grow tomatoes and I grow peppers and we can trade and others can buy them too. Not to mention, one of the regular sellers is the Tohono O'odham Farm Cooperative, the Native American nation whose reservation is next to (was) Tucson. There is also a strong theme of 'returning to' and appreciating the natural local native foods of the desert, mesquite beans, prickly pear fruit, squash, etc.

The more opportunity to buy food from local producers increases their ability to hire more employees and encourages others to take their food production into their own hands.

As for global food diversity, sure I appreciate my Greek olives, and Alaskan salmon, but why buy an apple from New Zealand when I can buy a perfectly tasty and equally priced apple not even from Washington state, but grown less than 90 miles from Tucson?


Reed Stevens

This is a ridiculous notion! Next you'll prescribe McDonald Nuggets.


The argument is flawed from the beginning. While it is true that local food can be exclusionary, this has little to do some inherent flaw in localizing the food system. It is more than reasonable to assume that should subsidies for American agriculture be restructured in favor of small holders that the market for local food would be more accessible to low income people. I'm sure McWilliams has thought of this, and it seems disingenuous to leave this quite large fact completely out of the argument. In the local food movement, the question of the moment is how do we change policy so that the values of the movement become institutionalized, and by making critiques that play well on the NY Times editorial page, instead of critiques that could move us forward, McWilliams shows his true colors - those of a corporate food hack with the dressings of a reform oriented critic.