By Samuel Fromartz
It's fashionable, or maybe just attention-grabbing, to argue that local and organic foods are elitist, the preserve of wealthy shoppers who are willing to dole out wads of bills for a weekly fix of local, sustainable food at the farmers' market.
Perhaps if it's repeated enough, we'll actually believe it, and then begin to spin yarns about the vast implications of this highly disturbing trend.
James McWilliams takes this simplistic view over at the Times' Freakonomics blog. If good, clean, food is elitist, he argues, then it leaves out the vast majority of shoppers and thus creates a wedge in our communities. So you better watch out! Farmers markets are secretly destroying your neighborhood.
In countering this ludicrous assertion, I'd first ask, Where is the evidence that local foods are elitist? You won't find it in McWilliams diatribe. He just assumes it.
Sure, I see people who are well-off at the Dupont Circle FreshFarm market in Washington (which is located in a high-income neighborhood). But I also see well-off people buying baby clothes on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I don't jump to the conclusion that farm-fresh food or baby clothes are only sought by the wealthy.
This issue actually came up when I was researching my book Organic Inc. I had the notion firmly imprinted in my head that the typical organic shopper was a 30-something, upper-middle class, Volvo-driving, latte-swilling, yoga babe.
But try as I did to find the market-research to support that image, I could not. In fact, the largest and most authoritative study on that issue found that the median income of an organic shopper was right around the national median. The Hartman Group, which studies such things and sells their data in pricey reports to the food industry, has said that income is the least important factor in determining whether someone is an organic shopper or not.
Which is why you find penniless college kids eating organic vegan dishes. Now, programs are sprouting that double the value of food stamps at farmers' markets. And guess what? They are quite successful.
As it is, ethnically diverse groups are disproportionately represented, Hartman found when studying the organic marketplace. Here's another factlet: one of the largest factors in determining organic food purchases was availability. What looks like a white, upper-middle class trend might simply be a function of availability. Or to flip the notion on its head, do low-income people prefer buying fast food and chips from corner stores, or are those purchases disproportionate because of the lack of alternatives? Access isn't the only issue here, but it is a big one.
Take the farmers' market I visited last weekend in Greenpoint Brooklyn. Sure there were a fair amount of white hipsters and young parents with strollers but there were Latino and Eastern European shoppers as well. "It's fresh?" asked one babushka eyeing a plump sourdough loaf. Surveying the crowd, you would be hard-pressed to describe it as upper-middle class.
In Washington, D.C., where I live, you see it too at farmers' markets that straddle neighborhoods with diverse income groups, like Eastern Market. This market is not some homogeneous beast as McWilliams assumes -- it's diverse because, it turns out, a lot of people like good, fresh food from farms.
Here's the other thing about this community-wilting farmers' market fantasy McWilliams concocts. Local food represents perhaps 2-3% of all food sales (though farmers' markets are sprouting extremely fast and not just in upper-income zip codes). It's so minute it probably has less impact on a community than a public school gardening program.
But as farmers' markets continue to grow -- and there is no indication that they won't -- they will likely add to communities simply by being a gathering place, where people can interact, especially as access increases. In short, there is nothing inherently elitist about local food, which is why all effort should be made in increasing access across the income spectrum.
But following McWilliams' logic, a superstore would offer more cohesion. They have the lowest prices. Low-income people can afford it. Oh yeah, only one problem. You don't need a lot of other businesses or even a Main Street when a superstore comes to town. You don't even need a lot of farmers. Just a few big ones. So how would a superstore create community cohesion? By spinning it from a fantasy determined solely by price.