Food Studies: Farmers' Market Ethnography

In which Erin, cupcake baker turned gastronomy student, leaves the safety of the library to conduct on-the-ground food stamp research.

Food Studies features the voices of volunteer student bloggers from a variety of different food- and agriculture-related programs at universities around the world. Don't miss Erin's first post, which explains her journey from cupcake baker to Boston University gastronomy student.

For my first semester of graduate school, I stuck with classes that were familiar to me, and allowed me to function within my academic comfort zone. I deliberately chose courses that required lots of reading, and allowed me to do most of my research in the library.

For my second semester, I decided to take classes that forced me into interacting more directly with the food system. I signed up for food ethnography, an intensive elective where we would have to do field work in the Boston community. While I wanted to be challenged this semester, I had no idea how difficult the ethnography course would be for me. For this class we have to do a combination of participant observation and interviews, among other research methods, to gather original data. Moreover, anthropology requires a completely different writing style than the one I am used to.

I choose to focus on food stamp usage at farmers' markets. I wanted to find out what systems were in place and what the pluses and minuses of such programs might be. The idea was that we would conduct research throughout the semester, with progress reports due at different points, culminating in a 20- to 30-page final paper.

As it's the winter months, there is currently only one market that I can visit. I've been there five times so far, taking notes about what different vendors are selling, what they have to say about their products, and the demographic groups shopping there. In addition to these on-the-ground observations, I've slowly been setting up interviews with different market managers, in an attempt to find out more about their experiences running markets that take food stamp benefits.

Initially, I discovered that while I am normally a very outgoing and confident person, asking people for interviews, taking photos at the farmers' market, and chatting with vendors as a means of research made me feel like a bumbling fool. As I've succeeded in setting up more interviews, written more papers about the data I'm beginning to gather, and made it to the market every week, I'm realizing that—fortunately—it just gets easier.

While my initial reaction when I realized how challenging this course would be for me was to fret over my grades, I now know how important learning new ways of approaching academic research is—and come to appreciate the richness of the experience of actually talking to people as opposed to sitting in the library.

To be continued... Erin is a student blogger for the Food Studies feature on GOOD's Food hub. If you enjoyed this, you should check out the rest of the Food Studies blogger gang here.

All photos courtesy of the author.

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