With the events of the past few weeks, I think it is important to talk about the inequities of our system as well. Those of us working for a just food system for all should be commended for the work we are doing, even as we are reminded of what remains unfair in them.
In my tenure in managing farmers markets in a city that has a majority of people of color, I had to acknowledge that the markets did not always reflected that reality. My organization, then called ECOnomics Institute, was founded on social justice principles and housed at a university center devoted to civil rights work so it was extremely important to advance its values. We certainly spent a great deal of time discussing how to reflect our community and to diversify our producers and were lucky enough to have activist farmers like Ben Burkett of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives as part of the founding group. Even so, we were like many of the older markets largely created and used by middle-class white community members, or by educated back-to-land white farmers, both groups valiantly trying to expand good food and ecological stewardship for everyone but not completely succeeding.
Part of the issue in the early days were the choice of locations. Often market chose (or were given) underused spaces in parts of town without much recent foot traffic or street-level retail, yet soon enough near or at the center of a gentrification push. Was it intentional or coincidental that markets chose gentrifying areas? Hard to know at this late date, but probably the promise of added nearby amenities and retail potential were vital for market organizations with little capital and few partners back then.
In simplest terms, gentrification is renovation and redevelopment of a populated area with one result most often being the displacement of folks from other socioeconomic strata including working-class families and people of color who had been left behind to those neighborhoods when the white flight began in the 1950s. Deindustrialization, decentralized economies and the urge of young people to distance themselves from the values of their suburban parents has led to more urbanites with enormous purchasing power returning to downtown zip codes, summed up in one analysis as: “This permanent tension on two fronts is evident in the architecture of gentrification: in the external restorations of the Victoriana, the middle classes express their candidature for the dominant classes; in its internal renovation work this class signifies its distance from the lower orders.” (Lees, Loretta, Tom Slater, and Elvin K. Wyly. The Gentrification Reader, London: Routledge (April 15, 2010)
The earliest “urban pioneers” of the 1970s may not actually reflect the term gentrifiers as they seemed more interested in living among the existing population and did not have the economic power to submerge what was there previously. Those pioneers include many market leaders who were able to do good community work around food. There maybe no better example of how that right impulse was later seen as elitism as in and around San Francisco:
The Free Farm Stand was started by Dennis “Tree” Rubenstein. Tree was one of the founders of the Kaliflower Commune and the Free Food Conspiracy of 1968, in Haight-Ashbury. After the Haight became recognized as cool, the area quickly got too rich for conspiracies, and Tree and his Kaliflower communists were pushed out to Shotwell and 23rd.
The Stand is now in the midst of the working poor of San Francisco’s Mission District, a testament to the idea that radical food politics will sprout where they are needed. Much of what we call food politics today—buying local, farming organic, eating vegetarian—originally came from collectives that wanted to raise awareness about industrially produced food. The People’s Food System of the mid-’70s was a network of community food stores and small-scale food collectives that organized to take back control of food from large agricultural and chemical companies; they built direct connections to farmers to establish the first farmers’ markets. Meanwhile, the Black Panthers were hosting free community breakfasts in their neighborhoods, and Alice Walters opened Chez Panisse partly as a space to talk about politics. Various collectives shared the urban farm known as the Crossroads Community (The Farm) on Potrero Avenue at the edge of the Mission.
All this activity resulted in a paradox: as radical food politics succeeded, healthy food became commodified as elite food, proving that successful social movements can be gentrified, just like neighborhoods. The best farmers’ market in San Francisco, at the Ferry Building, is also the least affordable, and Waters’ Chez Panisse, the standard-bearer of locally grown, seasonal food, has become one of the most expensive restaurants in Berkeley.
In recent years, urban farming has undergone a spirited revival in order to approach the issue of food security—the availability and accessibility of food—in its own way. There are five community gardens in the Mission, including one managed by the Free Food Stand, and seven more within walking distance. There are also edible gardens at schools, including Cesar Chavez Elementary School. Still most community garden plots in the Mission are tended by middle-class urbanites, perhaps well-read in food politics, but mostly involved in community food security; and more and more, urban gardening takes place on private plots. So even as radical urban farming resurfaces, a critical piece of the radial community garden or urban farm—people coming together to work in collectives and cooperatives—is lost…
Street Food by Adriana Camarena
(Alison Hope Alkon’s “Black, White, and Green; Farmers Markets, Race, and the Green Economy” also does an excellent job writing the history of 2 markets in the Northern California area: one in Berkeley, founded on environmental values and the Oakland market addressing factors of economic apartheid under an authoritative police presence.)
As evinced in the excerpt above, even though the organizers had not consciously intended to support the gentrification agenda, the majority of users of the farmers market system during the 1980s and 1990s were white urbanists with time on Saturday mornings and cash to spend. As gentrification grew, markets included more younger, more affluent childless couples who did not take active roles in pushing for a broad range of services. Those factors and more led to the conclusion for many that market communities were for those with time and cash and who reflected back the mostly white middle-aged or older vendor base. It is also true that like other movements before it, food has to consciously address the social determinants that encourage or discourage inclusion by those without influence (read money).What is hard about that of course is that the markets are about money transactions-the producers cannot afford to give away their hard work and the distance traveled to market continues to grow as farmland is gobbled up in expanding layers of gentrification. The delicate balance of creating wealth for the vendors can often feel as if it is in conflict with the needs of the at-risk population. No easy answers to that issue but the incentive programs have begun to add regular shoppers among those who previously were unsure. Still, the number of programs and different currencies are taxing both the market leaders and the vendors; let’s hope the technology gets to the point that it actually reduces the work needed to offer these programs!
As organizers, it is easy to grow impatient with those we serve who do not immediately appreciate the programs we offer and therefore to start to create expectations of failure. We need to devote more time in study of the demographics of our market cities and compare those to shopper zip codes, and to continue to seek out the generations and neighbors who have not been made comfortable in these new markets.We also need our staff and vendors to reflect the community we serve. I often have market board members or leaders telling me when asked if their market serves the entire community that they aren’t sure, or they recount how they have “tried to reach out to some of those neighbors but they just don’t want to come.” I do not doubt the willingness of the market community to include everyone, but the strategies can be tinged with assumptions that need to be challenged up front. Or to put it another way, to expect that the only way we will gain shoppers of people of color is through benefit or voucher programs is another assumption that we must challenge in ourselves.
Those assumptions are at the heart of the recent activism around the US: the challenge among people of color to white allies to consider and rid themselves of their privilege. Whether its not having to be taught added steps of how to talk to police when stopped, or not having buzzers and locked doors on our corner stores or even not being a world-class African-American tennis player who has people post about her body shape in ugly, racist terms the day after she achieves a historic win, we do not know about what we have not experienced until we ask and we listen. In order for us to understand the unearned advantage pale skin gives us, we need to examine our place in the world and our blanket statements or fears about those we do not resemble or live among. Challenging privilege does not mean that white organizers or farmers have to feel bad about themselves or their hard work, but that they need to look closely at how their community really operates for others who also work hard and cannot succeed.
I always encourage markets to spend time in strategizing how to attract newly arrived or socially disadvantaged producers as a start; sometimes it is simple as having the application available in more than one language or having paper copies on hand and time for a chat with someone asking. Or through expanding the bylaws of the market to include cooperatives, foraged foods or a wider selection of culturally appropriate items. Sometimes it requires markets find partners to help those new to farming gain advanced knowledge of how to create a crop plan or how to price competitively.
We can help our own cause by remembering that we can choose the values and the community that our markets serve by how we design it or how we choose an inclusive mission or bylaws. This short chronological history below is something I attempt to add to whenever I work with markets and so am glad to hear from any of you on it. What it shows me is the intention of the work that has been done over the last 40 years and that when we expand to new ideas, we find the right message and partners to make it possible. As always, this is somewhat off the top of my head so forgive any obvious omissions and feel free to email me directly with additions or corrections. (Exceptions to this timeline are to be found in every era; often those were led by a coalition of local voices who had their act together earlier than the rest of us.)
1970s-1980s: Back-to-land farmers and ecological advocates begin markets. Their organizing principle is “Grow it to sell it” which was a provocative statement at the time, asking for a commitment up front from both the growers and the buyers. These markets opened in places such as Madison WI, Carrboro NC, Athens OH, Berkeley CA, Montpelier VT-a lot of university towns actually.
1990s: Community leaders, aware of the first markets, begin to open markets in cities adding educational programming to the grow it to sell it mandate. Cities like San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, Portland, Cleveland, D.C. were the recipient of this work. Interestingly, many became the founders of larger networks, including Farmers Market Coalition. Social cohesion was an important value beginning in these years, because of these leaders.
1990s-2000s: Main Street markets in smaller towns and in rural communities began to add markets to their revival initiatives in towns like Ocean Springs MS, Natchitoches LA, Durham NC. These markets added value-added items and encouraged new non-farm vendors, focusing on incubating new businesses and supporting nearby Main Street initiatives.
2000s: As technology advanced to allow at-risk populations to access markets with their EBT card, public health strategies became useful and the field of practioners and agencies in that field began to partner with and sponsor new markets to expand good food by getting markets in new places and adding public health incentives. This certainly includes Kaiser-Permanente’s work to add markets to their own hospital campuses and markets such as Crossroads Farmers Market in Takoma Park MD.
2000s: Deeply embedded organizers add food initiatives to their portfolio of activities, utilizing on the community assets of residents. Markets in and around central Brooklyn NY like Brooklyn Rescue Mission, East New York Farm and Sankofa Market in New Orleans LA create multi-faceted centers of organizing with embedded markets to offer residents the opportunity to be both the buyers and vendors.
So my (flawed and incomplete) history shows a deep attention to entrepreneurial activity, food sovereignty and to farmland reclamation, and that we are beginning to address how food organizing needs to happen at community/market level and across systems at the very same time.
Today, we are all more conscious about the implication of creating programs that offer the real opportunity for diversity in front of and behind the tables. I have great hope for this work to be part of the solution and to continue to assist in tearing down the structural elements that divide us.