Thursday, September 3, 2009

Place Matters

If an author calls Berkeley, CA home he may see things differently than say one who calls Hartford, CN home. The questions he asks and the information he shares is in part determined by his place. Last year Mark Winne released a new book, Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty (Beacon Press, 2008). While Winne’s book tells a different tale than does Pollan’s, they describe many of the same institutions and structures, yet their descriptions of these institutions and structures are very different. While my point here is not novel, it has several important implications for food systems. I would like to use the example of a farmers’ market to illustrate my point. For Pollan, a farmers’ market is a place where good food can be bought in season and where we might free ourselves from the western diet (p.14, 157-160), for Winne, a farmers’ market is an oasis in a food desert where cheap food becomes available to the food insecure (p. 37-49). Even an institution as narrowly defined as a farmers’ market can mean many different things, can have very different objectives, and most importantly can have very different impacts. Place matters. This is not a criticism of the authors at all (both amazing), but rather a caution for the reader.
A few years ago, I was selling at the Kirkwood Farmers’ Market in St. Louis, MO. I operated a small farm about an hour or so south of St. Louis and would come in on Saturdays to try to make a living as a farmer (had it worked, I wouldn’t be here writing this). In the market I was selling at, only three of the vendors were actually farmers. That is to say, that all of the other vendors were purchasing their produce from a wholesale outlet/auction and then reselling at a profit. In early spring, when I was bursting with lettuce and radishes, my neighbors were selling green beans and tomatoes. I would often here from the market goers that I had best start planting those things that were selling and even had dozens of folks over one summer ask why I didn’t plant mangos like the other vendors (there are no mangos growing in Missouri!). I tried my best to educate, but I failed. The problem was simply that they had applied a concept out of context. They had read, as we all have, about farmers’ markets and the importance of supporting local farmers, but they were unaware that this market had no restriction on what a vendor could sell or whether a vendor need be a farmer. They had come to believe that they could get year-round tomatoes (and mangos) from local family farmers at their market. Well meaning books and ideas taken out of context by readers and without regard to place can be problematic.

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Blogger UW Libraries said...

It was a shock for my daugher, who grew up with California farmers' markets, to adjust to the local scene here. In California, local includes cheap avocadoes, grapes, and other fruit nearly year-round. Lucky Pollan and Alice Waters. I hope some day she can learn to enjoy the more vegetable-centered local bounty, which is beautiful but different. In both places, there are farmer's markets with somewhat different purposes in different neighborhoods/towns.


September 5, 2009 at 7:08 AM  

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