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April 29, 2006

Eating Local, Farmers' Markets, and Elitism

This May, a Bay Area group called the Locavores are challenging people to eat locally for the month. This Eat Local challenge has spurred a lot of conversation on food blogs (for a sampling see "Going to Food Jail" and "Eating Locally is Populist" over at one of my favorite food blogs, I'm Mad and I Eat), and inevitably, the charge has come up that the Eat Local challenge is elitist, because poor people don't have the money or the time to eat all local foods.

I've found this particularly interesting to put together with some other recent threads of discussion about farmers' markets, and how so many of them have become yuppified and irritating places to shop. (See "Oops, I Did It Again" over at, again, I'm Mad and I Eat, and "Back to the Market" over at Tea and Cookies.)

Now, I have my own problems with the idea of the Eat Local challenge. I think that making some effort to eat locally is very much worth doing. I think that supporting local farmers is important. I think that a lot of produce tastes better when it hasn't been shipped a thousand miles, and when it's being eaten at the peak of its season. And I also think that you can often discover that there are more "exotic" and exciting tastes to be found if you search out local products rather than going to a large corporate grocery store.

But I don't think that it's practical, or even desirable, for everyone to eat 100% locally all of the time. Humans have been using trade to enrich and vary their diets for basically all of recorded history. (Think of the vast amounts of trade engendered by people's desire for spices, coffee, and tea.)

To be absolutely fair, the proponents of the Eat Local challenge don't really suggest that everyone should eat 100% locally all the time, or even that people participating in the challenge should necessarily need to eat 100% locally for the whole month of May. The basic idea is to make people think about the source of their food, and encourage them to explore local foods, and I think both of these are very good things. (And I'll admit, I'm attracted to the challenge of trying to eat all locally, just as I'm often attracted to the challenge of trying to keep a strictly kosher Passover. This year, in both cases, I've decided that it's too much of a pain in the butt for me to manage at the moment.)

But is trying to eat more locally "elitist', or, to be more precise, economically unfeasible for the poor?

I don't think of it that way, and the reason why has a lot to do with my local farmers' market.

My local farmers' market (or at least the nearest farmers' market to where I live) is in San Jose's Japantown. It's a pretty small market, and I'll admit, I've occasionally compared it unfavorably to the San Francisco Ferry Plaza farmers' market. You can't get locally-made yogurt, or cheese, or meat, or fish at the Japantown farmers' market. The selection of fruit is often fairly meager, and even the vegetables, where the Japantown market generally really shines, can have some odd gaps. (I didn't score a single decent tomato at the Japantown market last summer, and I haven't spotted any artichokes yet this spring, though I'm still hoping.)

However, the overall quality of the produce ranges from good to best-damn-apple-I've-ever-tasted level. And it's cheap. I play a game with myself when I hit the farmers' market - can I spend more than $10 before deciding that I have more food than I can possibly use before it spoils? I think I managed to hit $12 once, on a day when I bought both mushrooms and walnuts.

And it's not a yuppie-haven. Probably the closest you get to yuppies there are me and the handful of other earnest, bespectacled, jeans-and-hiking-boots-wearing women who frequent the market. But the core patrons of the market are locals, many of them first-generation immigrants, and while I don't ask them their income, and I don't really know that many of them would qualify as "poor", many of them do seem be making the most of a limited food budget.

Now, the Japantown farmers' market is probably not typical. Perhaps the more typical farmers' market is more along the yuppie-magnet model. But I think that the Japantown market is a great example of how to have a market that meets the needs of a wide cross-section of the community - from people who just want to put a good dinner on the table without breaking the bank, to those of us who like to invest time and money in eating well.

So, how do we get more of these markets out there? I don't know, but I figure that one thing I can do is to make sure that I support the market I've got.

So, that's what I'm going to do for the May Eat Local challenge, modest as it is. I'm going to do my best to get out to the Japantown farmers' market every Sunday, and to buy as much of my produce as possible from there. Stay tuned, and I'll let you know how it goes.

Posted by spaceling at April 29, 2006 04:54 PM

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