Is Locavorism Really Elitist?

It’s fashionable, or maybe just attention-grabbing, to argue that local and organic foods are elitist, the preserve of wealthy shoppers who are willing to dole out wads of bills for a weekly fix of local, sustainable food at the farmers’ market.

Perhaps if it’s repeated enough, we’ll actually believe it, and then begin to spin yarns about the vast implications of this highly disturbing trend.

James McWilliams takes this simplistic view over at the Times’ Freakonomics blog. If good, clean, food is elitist, he argues, then it leaves out the vast majority of shoppers and thus creates a wedge in our communities. So you better watch out! Farmers markets are secretly destroying your neighborhood.

In countering this ludicrous assertion, I’d first ask, Where is the evidence that local foods are elitist? You won’t find it in McWilliams diatribe. He just assumes it.

Sure, I see people who are well-off at the Dupont Circle FreshFarm market in Washington (which is located in a high-income neighborhood). But I also see well-off people buying baby clothes on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I don’t jump to the conclusion that farm-fresh food or baby clothes are only sought by the wealthy.

This issue actually came up when I was researching my book Organic Inc. I had the notion firmly imprinted in my head that the typical organic shopper was a 30-something, upper-middle class, Volvo-driving, latte-swilling, yoga babe.

But try as I did to find the market-research to support that image, I could not. In fact, the largest and most authoritative study on that issue found that the median income of an organic shopper was right around the national median. The Hartman Group, which studies such things and sells their data in pricey reports to the food industry, has said that income is the least important factor in determining whether someone is an organic shopper or not.

Which is why you find penniless college kids eating organic vegan dishes. Now, programs are sprouting that double the value of food stamps at farmers’ markets. And guess what? They are quite successful.

As it is, ethnically diverse groups are disproportionately represented, Hartman found when studying the organic marketplace. Here’s another factlet: one of the largest factors in determining organic food purchases was availability. What looks like a white, upper-middle class trend might simply be a function of availability. Or to flip the notion on its head, do low-income people prefer buying fast food and chips from corner stores, or are those purchases disproportionate because of the lack of alternatives? Access isn’t the only issue here, but it is a big one.

Take the farmers’ market I visited last weekend in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Sure there were a fair amount of white hipsters and young parents with strollers but there were Latino and Eastern European shoppers as well. “It’s fresh?” asked one babushka eyeing a plump sourdough loaf. Surveying the crowd, you would be hard-pressed to describe it as upper-middle class.

In Washington, D.C., where I live, you see it too at farmers’ markets that straddle neighborhoods with diverse income groups, like Eastern Market. This market is not some homogeneous beast as McWilliams assumes — it’s diverse because, it turns out, a lot of people like good, fresh food from farms.

Here’s the other thing about this community-wilting farmers’ market fantasy McWilliams concocts. Local food represents perhaps 2-3% of all food sales (though farmers’ markets are sprouting extremely fast and not just in upper-income zip codes). It’s so minute it probably has less impact on a community than a public school gardening program.

But as farmers’ markets continue to grow — and there is no indication that they won’t — they will likely add to communities simply by being a gathering place, where people can interact, especially as access increases. In short, there is nothing inherently elitist about local food, which is why all effort should be made in increasing access across the income spectrum.

But following McWilliams’ logic, a superstore would offer more cohesion. They have the lowest prices. Low-income people can afford it. Oh yeah, only one problem. You don’t need a lot of other businesses or even a Main Street when a superstore comes to town. You don’t even need a lot of farmers. Just a few big ones. So how would a superstore create community cohesion? By spinning it from a fantasy determined solely by price.

Originally Published on Chews Wise

8 thoughts on “Is Locavorism Really Elitist?

  1. Scene in an inner city chain supermarket in Oakland, CA, about a year ago.

    Mother to daughter: Let’s get the organic one. It’s supposed to be better for you.

    Of course that organic was neither local, fresh or small farm — it was the store’s branded boxed product, but still …

  2. Of course this is the case if you’re shopping at farmer’s markets located in affluent communities. Our farmer’s market in rural Ohio does not say “elitist” at all. If anything it’s the opposite view here. People think that if you’re “well-off enough” you shouldn’t have to grow some of your own food or shop at the farmer’s market.

    I find the farmer’s market to be much cheaper than the local grocery store, so it’s actually the place where those on a budget should be shopping.

    I think it’s more of an issue of those who care and those who don’t. I care deeply about where my food comes from and what goes into it. I have some good friends that don’t, so they shop at the grocery I shop at the farmer’s market.

  3. Perhaps the locavore movement is perceived as elitist because the “face” of the locavore appears to be predominately white and middle class.

    If there were highly visible nonwhite faces on the taste/pleasure principle side of the sustainable food movement, then maybe it could really just be about eating good, nutritious food locally sourced.

  4. It seems to me that there are two important things that divide high-income communities from median- and low-income communities around food. The first, as the post touches on, is access. This is where the social inequalities come out: supermarket redlining, racism, and economic discrimination, deep injustices that manifest in a lot of places as a lack of healthful food.

    The second issue is language. I don’t think it’s that “the ‘face’ of the locavore appears to be predominantly white…”, but that the term itself, “locavore,” is mainly the language of us white, upper-middle class folk. Who are we talking about in a “locavore movement”? Those trying to eat sustainably in the most adverse conditions, like urban agriculture organizations and food pantries, talk about food justice and food sovereignty — a very different perspective. The difference in terminology isn’t merely linguistical; it goes back the different different levels of access people have to food.

    For a good urban agriculture take on these issues, Brahm Ahmadi’s blog is excellent. He’s the founder of The People’s Grocery in Oakland.

    http://peoplesgrocery.org/blogs/brahm/

  5. Yeah, I think you nailed it and Paolo has an important addition. Walking the walk is not elitist; talking the talk may be. My farmers’ market’s patrons are about 70% South, East, and Southheast Asian in background, maybe 20% white and Latino, the rest various. I would guess that a large number of the shoppers are fairly to very comfortably middle class, but plenty of them are not. They’re shopping there for a variety of reasons, including price (news flash: where I live, the market is often cheaper than the grocery store), availability of certain items outside potatoes/carrots/lettuce (and the market is WAY cheaper than places like Whole Foods when it comes to things like organic kabocha), health, and environmental concerns.

    I suspect my fellow shoppers might been seen in smaller numbers at some of the chichi markets in the area, where produce prices are higher and the main focus is really on artisanal products, but hey, I don’t shop there either.

    Yeah, why isn’t anybody talking to my fellow shoppers?

  6. Great comments here and more over at my blog at chewswise.com . I think Paolo makes an excellent point on language. If you visit an ethnic or rural farmers market, it’s likely just known as a farm stand or market, without the ideological baggage we’ve attached to the concept. Also appreciate LQ’s perspective — one that was echoed by a local meat purveyor over at my blog. Thanks everyone for commenting.

  7. It is my understanding and direct experience that the terms “locavore”, “food justice” and “food sovereignty” all fall within the “sustainable food” movement.

    With regards to food justice/sovereignty, those terms are used specifically to address issues of food access and food insecurity. The locavore side is more specific to taste, pleasure, principle – eating locally sourced/produced foods.

    While food justice is inclusive of locally-sourced and produced foods, locavores can and do exist separately from issues of food insecurity, if they so choose.

    “Locavore” is not exclusive to high-income (and white) communities, but I do agree that whomever coins the term, owns the term. Plenty of middle and low-income people support and maintain a locavore philosophy.

    Their stories just don’t seem to be as interesting.

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