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.


Christina

As someone who is in the process of working with a community group to set up a farmer's market in our section of the city, this article piqued my interest.

I live in the most ethnically diverse ward of Washington, DC and, yes, I'm the stereo-typical white, recent-college grad female working at a non-profit. The experience has forced me to reevaluate the assumptions I'd made on the progress of my community and ask whether or not I'm part of problem.

Originally, I was afraid that I would walk into my first meeting only to find a sea of white faces looking back at me. Instead, I found a healthy, self-selected group of people that roughly mirrored the make up of our community. On the agenda was discussing the possibilities of using a local currency, how to green the market, how to open up our view of local to allow the diversity of Latin American products. I was fully engaged and excited to be involved, but the screeching cognitive dissonance ringing between my ears after the meeting made me realize that I'd been harboring a prejudiced rationale that the marketing profile for "green consumers" perpetuates: that only upper and middle-class, mostly white, foodies/activists/etc. "get-it" and the rest of the population - all colors and salary figures included - aren't enlightened enough to think that eating healthy, sustainable food produced in a humane manner is important and worth paying a bit more for.

It's a dangerous assumption to make because it leaves so many out of an important discussion -- even if it's cushioned by well-intentioned thoughts that others have "more important" and pressing societal struggles to face and that I should not force my ideals on others. With all my academic analysis of "the situation" I was blind to a transformation in consciousness that is going on around me. Sure, we have a long way to go - but I think the first step is for us to come back to reality, look each other in the eyes, and recognize each other for what we are - humans in search of some good food.

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J. Wong

It's a mistake to assume farmer's markets are implicitly elitist although that is often true.

In San Francisco, there are several farmer's markets that have been there "forever" (at least long before locavorism) that are not elistist and in fact cater to non-white, non-rich clientle. These are the Alemany Farmer's Market and the Civic Center Farmer's Market. The food sold there may or may not be "sustainable"; it often is not On the other hand, there is the world famous Ferry Farmer's Market, which most definitely caters to the elite, but which was founded in the last 20 years.

Scott

I'm in agreement with most of the comments here.

Additionally, I would like to see Mr. McWilliams do the kind of quantitative research that Freakonomics is famous for. I haven't read his book, and maybe there's more in there, but most of what I'm reading has been anecdotal at best--including the source he cites here. I would hypotheszie that in fact farmers markets are changing in demographic, price, and range of food offerings. I'd liek to see the data to support or refute that.

David Berman

This is just dreadful science. It critiques the least relevant corner of the food movement, and does so by conflating theory with actual fact.

Locavorism is to the food movement what the Back to Africa movement was to civil rights -- an extreme, dogmatic oversimplified solution to a complex problem. Which is precisely what explains its currency -- it attracts press because it is extreme, and it attracts adherents, as all dogmas do, because it is simple. Supporting local agriculture through farmers' markets in no way implies that we should stop transporting food, or that food systems can or should become exclusively local.

And then this: "What often follows, as a result, are local food systems in which a self-elected cohort of decision makers promotes a subjective vision..." I am not aware of anyplace in America where the proliferation of farmers' markets has closed a single supermarket -- a single deli for that matter -- so where is it that anybody's food choices are being limited by local agriculture? This is the highly selective misuse of economic theory. What's really true of our food system is that not only consumer choice but biodiversity itself has been delimited by industrialization and globalization of the food supply, and that the renaissance of local agriculture -- still a tiny movement in the food economy -- is rescuing choices that would otherwise be lost.

But to the heart of the critique: Is locavorism only for the rich? At the moment, yes. Sustainable agriculture is more expensive than industrial mono-crop agriculture -- that's why the latter has proliferated. And it's especially more expensive than SUBSIDIZED agriculture, which is the primary reason that the worst food in America is the cheapest food in America, why the poor can afford a happy meal but not a bunch of organic, locally grown broccoli. Farmers' markets frequented by the well-to-do are only the entry point for a movement that has a tremendous amount of work in front of it, and criticizing it because it has not accomplished both environmental sustainability and social justice in one fell swoop is just plain dumb.

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Vern Lindquist

This is, by far, the worst article I've read in this series, for reasons that many astute commentators have already pointed out.

Here's another way to extend this logic: if I plant a garden and harvest my own lettuce and beans, I thereby deprive the existing distribution network of that business and should feel guilty?

Please.

Food grown, harvested, and eaten locally is better for the people who grow it and the people who eat it. I like knowing the rancher who raises the beef and pork I eat. I like knowing the person who feeds the chickens who give me eggs. I also like knowing that my money helps these people live sustainable, valuable, and rewarding lives.

Alex

The argument that locavorism is associated with the wealthy is probably correct. However, this is a result of not just prices at local markets, but education. The wealthy and well-educated tend to be healthier, because they not only have better access to healthy food, but they also have a better conception of what in fact is healthy food.

A key component to spreading locavorism to all echelons of American society is not only access, but EDUCATION. More must be done to educate the masses on healthy food. Once people are educated and know what ingredients they need to cook tasty and healthy cuisine, demand for local markets in all types of neighborhoods will grow.

To argue, that somehow eating as a locavore is destroying the jobs of hard-working Americans is laughable. In reality, all it will hurt is the profits of mega corporations that long ago broke up unions, cut benefits and currently offer dead-end positions at minimum wage.

The reality is that a move to more sustainable agriculture will not only improve health and the environment, it will also create new jobs....However, these jobs will require a new sort of migration.... out of cities and back to the farms.

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Madeleine Brink

Right. Is this divide in economic accessibility fundamentally a cut from the land and our dependence on it? Yes. Is it a result of industrialization? Yes. So why do we try and use more industrialization to untangle the problems it has caused us. It just gets us deeper into the debt of the system.

In order for people of all races to be more independent in their food choices (and life choices), we must try and de-tangle ourselves from industrial food, beginning with locally-produced food. Is it a sacrifice at times? Yes. Does it impose a type of re-prioritization? Yes. Are some unable or unwilling or morally opposed to re-prioritizing? Yes.

Farmers' markets and co-ops (little intervention, and few middle men) are still cheaper and fresher than Whole Foods. So for the portion of the population that enjoys them, and for the farmers who can now survive on small farms, keep it up!

If we really want to be purists about the situation, we must remove ourselves from the cash-based economy that the European settlers imposed on the original people of this land. Few are willing to go that far, but for the rest of us, at least the markets that value food as the key to sustaining life are a start to uninflating our mechanized society.

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Philip Ferrato

Patricia Allen seems to be unwilling to look at the world around her. Or perhaps she's only been to the Farmer's Market at Ferry Plaza in San Francisco. If she does, I hope she stays after closing to see the farmers loading up trucks from the local food bank. It's not like they take the heirloom tomatoes home with them.

As for eliminating "middleman" jobs, it's more likely they've been jobs replaced in distribution networks she hasn't recognized.

As for choice, her analysis is laughable. How many people does she think select her produce at Safeway or Costco?

"Localization, by contrast, specifies what is and is not acceptable within an arbitrary boundary". Sorry, but seasonality is not an arbitrary boundary- it is the fundamental basis for locavorism.

Trust me, Mother Nature's still around.

Ben Hirsch

The argument that farmer's markets are somehow going to lead to the unemployment of middlemen or grocery store employees seems like a stretch. Is there any data supporting this assertion? Even if it was true, what types of jobs are really being lost? Would this lead to fewer small business owners or a bunch of laid off grocery store workers? What about the increase in employment and/or increase in yearly salaries to small scale farmers who would otherwise not be able to compete against large agro-businesses?
I'd also like to point out that when the author refers to the "price" of food, this is not the real "cost." The price of food here is only what a consumer pays for it. The true "cost" of a food needs to take into account the amount of federal subsidies given to the grower (which is biased towards large agro-businesses) and the various externalities associated with the food. Given the high costs of water, air and soil pollution associated with industrial farming and food production, organic and local foods are probably cheaper for society at large. Michael Pollen has argued that the proliferation of processed foods has led to major increases in health care costs as well. Given the astronomically high levels of health care spending in the US, industrial farming may be costing the US a lot more money than ever imagined.

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Kate

This argument is absurd. When have you gotten out of New York? So you talk to a few academics, and that's your research? Have you been to any local farmer's markets outside of NYC?

There are farmers markets all over the Seattle area-- one for every day of the week. At my local farmers market, which I visit just about every Sunday (the kids love it) there is a diverse set of people (as diverse as one gets out here in the PNW-- I'm from NYC too). This doesn't mean I don't go to Safeway for my staples and our local food coop PCC for granola and the asian food market for my soy sauce and sake. I don't think the farmer's markets take anyone's jobs away-- they just fulfill their own niche. And they sustain our fabulous local farmers. And they are there for all to enjoy.

Lynn

James McWilliams is a shill for Monsanto and giant agribusiness in general. I'm astonished and dismayed to see him being given a platform in the NYTimes to disseminate his distorted and dishonest 'information'. It's disappointing.

Sunny

How do we make locavorism more accessable? The farmer's markets in Tucson are run by the community food back and take food stamps, which is a big plus.
The challenge is hours, days and locations. Most are during the day or in far away neighborhoods- not easy for those of us with limited transportation options or long work hours.

Scott

Reviewers have slammed this guy's book (see: http://www.alternet.org/environment/142202/inflammatory_new_book_attacking_local_food_movement_has_one_grain_of_truth_buried_under_heaps_of_manure/), so I'm surprised that the NY Times turns to him for thoughts about the local-food movement.

His notion that local food is for the rich only is false. "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)." Farmers' markets in the Baltimore area, where I live, serve local produce and draw all kinds of people: suburban whites, inner-city blacks, college students, working-class folk. At the farmers' markets, some food is more expensive than what you find in Giant or SuperFresh, but with many seasonal foods, the price is actually the same or less. (What's more, the food leftover at the end of the market is donated to Our Daily Bread, the local soup kitchen. Would a national corporation organize to provide that kind of support?)

He also writes: "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."

The jobs provided by multinational food corporations and other large-scale growing operations are often low-paid, undesirable work. Agro-economists like John Ikerd, of U. of Missouri, have pointed out that local food systems employ more people at better wages in better jobs. The non-local model of food production has led to a hollowing out of rural areas.

I'll stop there, as there are a bunch of issues that need to be addressed beyond the simple class conflict that local food does not raise: issues like food security, the environmental benefits of local food, the inherent instability of shipping food thousands of miles across the country, the winnowing of fruit/vegetable varieties to those that are easy to ship long distances, etc.

This guy's scholarship is garbage.

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Linda Watson

This has not been my experience at all of either the customers at the markets or the activists who promote them. As part of my research for Cook for Good, I've been to about 10 local farmers' markets here in central North Carolina and given cooking demonstrations at three of them, during which I get a chance to talk with the people who come to the market.

Even the market in front of a high-end gourmet store had some mix in the income level and ethnicity of the customers. (I did have to change my pitch from "97 cent meals" to "environmentally sound" there). Other markets have a mix that is only a little whiter and seemingly wealthier than the nearby population, particularly the downtown markets and the state-run market that features conventionally-grown produce.

I've also been at several wellness events and a forum for women trying to enter the middle class. Participants have largely been enthusiastic about my menus and recipes, which feature seasonal food often purchased at a farmers' market.

http://www.cookforgood.com -- Save money. Eat well. Do good.

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A.B.

Yeah, I don't know what kind of farmers' markets this guy has been frequenting, but at mine, I get a huge bag full of amazing bell peppers for the cost of a single bell pepper at my local Key Foods. True, I can spend $6 for a half dozen eggs if I want to, but I don't have to. My market is fairly diverse, and my local food co-op, which sources locally, is about the most diverse grocery you'll find in my borough. Additionally, several local restaurants source produce from an urban farm that employs and teaches kids from the projects and grows plenty of collards and okra. My other farmers market experience, in Missoula, MT in '05, was shocking to me in that almost all of the vendors were non-white, immigrant growers making a living in the surrounding valleys doing something they liked and doing it well.

Brad Riendeau

Isn't it a good idea to have both?
If the local foodshed comes up empty
say in a drought than there better
be a wider foodshed. If the wider
foodshed comes up out of fuel
than there better be a local foodshed.
If the standard tomato develops a disease
we better have the heirlooms available
to find disease resistance. If the wheat
crop goes bad in a wet year, it would
be good to have wheat from some place
else than to have ergot mold in the rye bread.
(i.e. LSD ).
Nobody likes to see people starving.
Maybe if people saw that some of
their neighbors didn't have enough
to eat they might change their outlook.

BJ Mpls

This whole post stinks of contrarianism for its own sake. The conditions described do not resemble the reality of local foods as I (and apparently most of the readers) see them in actual farmers markets. In Minneapolis, for example, the largest group of farmers market vendors at most of our markets are Hmong - so much for the the idea that market's lack diversity. i'll also echo the sentiments of others that prices are often cheaper than grocery stores, and the quality better. I also echo the people who point out that farmers markets are not a threat to grocery stores, but provide complementary goods and services. I can point to several farmers markets in other cities that are actually in the parking lots of grocery stores and hosted by the store. Why? Because the farmers market may have better produce, but the shoppers still need things that farmers market's will never offer such as kitty litter, a twelve pack of coke, etc.

The kind of reductive, over-simplified, all-or-nothing argument made in this post really just muddies the waters. Nice work!

There are some interesting actual economic phenomenon in farmers markets worth studying. For example, prices tend to be exactly the same for all vendors in a market (for example, every farmer will sell 5 tomatoes for $3). Why don't people undercut their competitors? Because that would be rude! There isn't price fixing, because there's not explicit collaboration, but there does often appear to be socially-mediated, implicit collusion. Also plenty of price discrimination goes on - for those buying bulk, for those who show up right at the end of the day when they need to get rid of extra produce, or perhaps for those who speak Hmong.

Local food is a positive and interesting phenomenon, and not a threat. Its fun to poke sticks at conventional wisdom, but at least come up with a coherent argument.

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A GC in CA

Perhaps one partial solution to this potential problem may be found here in LA and SF, where many local Kaiser hospitals have started having weekly farmers' markets. Gets "local" foods out to multiple accessible areas, and both patients and employees can take advantage. All arguments aside, I can't help but love my own local farmers' markets, and I'm going to keep taking advantage of 'em. :)

Alex

"It's just a thought" is putting it too generously. It's just a bunch of random rumination with no empirical support, no examples, nothing.

You "don't see" socioeconomic diversity at farmer's markets? How do you know? Are you judging by people's shoes, or what? "In general," only the elite can take advantage of locally grown food? Says who? The locavore movement "might very well be" be alienating consumers? Sure, but since you're just positing this proposition rather than actually attempting to demonstrate it in any meaningful sense, we might as well assume the reverse is true.

Can I pull generalizations out of my rear end too and get published in the New York Times?

Robert P

Since when do economists argue that keeping middlemen in business is efficient? It's a short term loss for a few followed by a long term gain for many. You are also not taking into account many benefits that occur when food is produced locally, most notably economizing on fuel consumption. Also, the massive subsidies that the US pays to agribusiness congloms to overproduce produce are economic inefficiencies. If local farmers can compete with that in ANY way, good for them.
This sounds similar to the logic expressed in Penn and Teller's HBO show BullSh!t, in which "exposed" organic foods as being less flavorful, more expensive, and harmful to the environment. As it turned out, Penn and Teller's source was the conservative Hudson Institute, payed for by big agribusiness like conagra.