Structural racism and farmers markets, Part 1

With the recent uptick in the national conversation about racism and inclusion, I think it is important to talk about the inequities of food specifically in our communities. 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 and unjust.
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 reflect 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 us 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, in the early years we were like many of markets back then: 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 always succeeding. Since then, the diversity has been increased both in vendors and visitors to those markets, as has the work being done by the entity now called Market Umbrella. The leadership continues to share their pilots with other markets and to increase access for local food to more residents of all socioeconomic strata – not just at their markets but at grocery stores, farm stands in low access areas of the city and in schools.

Part of the issue in the early days was the choice of locations. Often markets were given underused spaces in parts of town without much recent foot traffic or street-level retail, yet found themselves 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. Since those early days, the choice of locations has expanded so that markets now serve food deserts and areas with low supermarket access in thousands of places across the U.S.

In simplest terms, gentrification is the renovation and redevelopment of a populated area with one result most often being the displacement of folks from other socioeconomic strata, most often working-class families and people of color who had been left behind to those neighborhoods when the white flight began in the 1950s. In the last 15 years, deindustrialization, decentralized economies and the urge of young people to distance themselves from the values of their suburban parents have led to more urbanites with enormous purchasing power returning to downtown zip codes. An engrossing read on the subject can be found in the book: From The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century by DW Gibson.

It seems important here to note that the food system’s “urban pioneers” of the 1970s do not reflect the term gentrifiers as they were 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. To this day, I would argue that most markets continue to focus on what the present community wants in terms of market design, and have spurned developers displacement tactics. Still, markets can also be a victim of surrounding gentrification plans, especially if the municipality does not yet have a plan for equitable development that includes food. And many do not.
An example of how there may be no better example of how that right impulse can evolve into food seen as a gentrifier in and around San Francisco than this excerpt from Street Food by Adriana Camarena from March/April 2013:

“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 Waters 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…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…”

(By the way, 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 other the Oakland market determined to address factors of economic apartheid under an authoritative police presence and continue the food organizing of Black Panthers, showing that markets can manage a very contextual organizing mission to serve their communities. )

As evinced in the Camarena excerpt, even though the SF organizers had not consciously intended to support the gentrification agenda, the growing number of users during the 1980s and 1990s were white urbanists with time and cash to spend. As gentrification grew, markets included younger, more affluent childless couples who did not take active roles in pushing for a broad range of services. The larger backdrop, of course, is that the U.S. has a tiered system of access in ALL sectors: housing, education, technology, healthcare and so on-industrial food has been no different.
(Added to that, the digital divide around the USDA’s 1990s move to an electronic card for benefits such as food stamps meant that the most at-risk neighbors could no longer use those benefits at their market. It took markets piloting the wireless technology once it arrived around 2004-5 and designing the token systems on their own to be included once again in the distribution of those dollars. Since then, the SNAP dollars spent at markets has surpassed the food stamp era and now is past the 20 million dollar a year mark.)

So, like other movements before it, community food has had to consciously address the social determinants that encourage or discourage inclusion by those without influence (read money). What is tricky about that, of course, is that the goal of the markets ARE money transactions as the producers cannot afford to give away their hard work and the cost of the travel 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. One strategy has been the work to bring back’s partners the most at-risk residents through the incentive and voucher programs. Those programs have begun to add regular shoppers among those who previously were unsure or felt left out. Still, the number of programs and different currencies being used by funders 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 rather than add to it as it does now.

Even with the incentive programs attracting more at-risk or lower-income shoppers,  it is easy for any organizer to grow impatient with those who do not immediately appreciate the programs offered and therefore for the market’s partner to have expectations of failure. The successful models devote time in study of the demographics of their market cities comparing those to shopper zip codes to continue to seek out the generations and neighbors who have not been made comfortable in these new markets. They do so without showing impatience or burning out our small businesses by constantly introducing new shoppers and not retaining enough of them as return shoppers.
They also realize the need for their market staff and vendors to reflect the community they serve. I have had some 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 it’s 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 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.

One method used by markets has been to spend time in strategizing how to attract newly arrived or socially disadvantaged producers. 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. There are many examples of markets using these tactics successfully to increase diversity of users, both as vendors at first and then in shoppers.

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, civil rights leaders, and ecological advocates begin markets. Their organizing principle is “Grow it HERE to sell it HERE” 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 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.

Part 2


1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Structural racism and farmers markets, Part 2 | Helping Public Markets Grow

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