Farmers' markets, a mainstay in several cities and towns, are meant to provide fresh -- and often local -- organic products, while re-establishing direct connections between communities and the people who produce food. By so doing, the markets are expected to create alternative food systems that prioritize issues of health, sustainability, and justice in addition to traditional market mechanisms. They empower shoppers to express their dissatisfaction with food production as it is now. By "voting with their dollars," customers can put pressure on Corporate America, by taking business away from it. The increasing presence of organic and local products in supermarkets and big box stores seems to indicate that large companies are in fact very sensitive to signals coming from their client base. At the same time, individual consumers who share the same practices and ideals can establish forms of community interaction to achieve their shared goals. Their engagement can range from shopping at farmers markets to participating in volunteer activities, or social and political mobilization.
Farmers' markets focus on products that embody social and environmental values that are supposed to move beyond the mere question of price. From this point of view, they are part of a growing "green economy," a sector including environmental friendly and socially responsible goods and services. However, despite the declared goals, the green economy still operates within a neoliberal approach that envisions the market and its mechanisms as the best way for society to determine its priorities and bring about change. Farmers' markets thrive within the framework of economic structures which require producers to ensure financial viability to their enterprise, expand their potential customers, and operate within legal and administrative systems that are shaped by political and social negotiations at the local, national, and even international levels.
The analysis of these contradictions and the shift of political and social responsibility from citizens to consumers are at the core of Alison Hope Alkon's book, Black, White, and Green: Farmers Markets, Race, and the Green Economy. Alkon conducted research in two markets in the San Francisco Bay area: North Berkeley, predominantly white, and West Oakland, a historically black neighborhood. The two markets have distinct missions and the customers differ in social status and income. As a result, the farmers who sell at the markets have very different approaches to business and community building. Through conversations, interviews, and her own participation in the markets' activities, Alkon points the difference between the two environments. She notes that health, quality, and the environment are the most important motivations for the North Berkeley patrons, who are willing to pay a premium in order to support the merchants and the structure that they believe can advance these goals. On the other hand, those involved with the now closed West Oakland Market embraced sustainability, not necessarily as a goal per se, but rather as a tool to enhance the well-being of the neighborhood where the market was located and the community that patronized it. Furthermore, price was an issue for many of the shoppers and, as a consequence, for farmers that wanted to establish a viable business.
The contrast between the two markets reminds us of the fact that not everybody has the financial means to buy high-quality, local, and organic products. Consequently, price becomes a discriminant in terms of choices and preferences. More attention needs to be paid to issues of social justice, marginalization, and access, which cannot be reduced to the phenomenon of "food deserts," a term resented by many activists who interpret it as reflective of an approach that perpetuates biases and preconceptions against low-income communities. The establishment of alternative food systems is not sufficient if large sections of the population risk to be excluded from them. Also far-reaching political interventions to regulate food business and industrial-style agriculture are necessary, requiring consumers to act as citizens and take advantage of all the instruments of participation available in a democracy.
Alkon ends her book with a few examples of campaigns born out of the green economy that have tried to impact political issues, including recent urban-based Farm Bill advocacy, the growth of green jobs, and the prevention of farm animal cruelty. The author, who will discuss her research at the New School on March 5, 2013, reminds us that things can change -- as long as we keep on asking ourselves who is producing our food, who is selling it, who is able to buy what and, ultimately, who gains.