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What Are Farmers' Markets For?

Their promise of fresh local food isn't always kept, but maybe that's not what farmers' markets are really about.

Kids reach up from strollers to fondle the fennel fronds. A boy plays fiddle tunes. Dogs yap. And what’s-his-name collects signatures for the ballot initiative on medical marijuana. Wooden crates line the ground: a hodgepodge of deals on cilantro, cucumbers, and cabbage. By late summer, the habaneros are piled high, and behind the produce, there’s something even hotter: the local farmer. Well, maybe he’s local. But maybe just a guy who wants to make a few bucks by selling a distributor’s vegetables to a bunch of yuppies.

Head to any farmers market and the scenes play out with slight variations. Or pick up the travel books Under the Tuscan Sun or On Mexico Time. There’s something about sensual market spaces that has thoroughly captivated the 21st-century Western cultural imagination. Architects and urban planners from Lebanon to the Netherlands are busy redesigning public spaces to include food vendors. In the United States, farmers’ markets have doubled over the last decade to more than 5,000.

When supermarkets rolled around in the late 1930s, they offered a respite from confrontational direct interaction with pushcart vendors and hucksters who could cheat or discriminate against outsiders. But have modern farmers’ markets really made any strides from their forebearers?

Even today, many markets offer little guarantee of local food and no guarantee that the vendor himself grew what he’s selling. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a Wisconsin market where resellers bought produce at auction and undersold actual local farmers. These vendors-masquerading-as-farmers offer little more than the average supermarket and hardly appear to be an isolated problem, especially when the market managers in charge of policing such matters are under pressure from local chambers of commerce to draw crowds and expand markets with donut vendors, burrito makers, or street carnival performers.

But perhaps local food is not the sole purpose of such markets. There’s little scientific evidence that buying from local farmers’ markets is really better for the planet and the shift away from supermarkets—which make excellent use of centralized distribution points and other efficiencies of scale—probably increases the number of food miles traveled: Each vegetable from a 53-foot trailer packed with pallets has a much smaller carbon footprint than those carried by a farmer driving his pickup of locally-produced boxes to a farmers’ market.

So if markets are not necessarily better for the environment and they aren’t always transparent about the source of food, what are they for? In a recent essay on the food movement, Michael Pollan cites a sociologist who found that shoppers were 10 times as likely to spark up a conversation at a market compared to a grocery store. He's not alone in suggesting that farmers’ markets are not exclusively designed for buy-local commerce. In Market Day in Provence, an ethnographic study of southern France’s outdoor markets, author Michèle de La Pradelle suggests that street markets serve little economic function; their purpose is cultural. Their potential includes reinvigorated public space, walkable neighborhoods, and places where people can talk about, touch, and ask questions about the food they’re purchasing—directly from the farmer (or, in some cases, the middleman).

Both scholars and activists have cited the recent growth of farmers' markets as evidence of a great transformation in food distribution. The Obama Administration has jumped on the bandwagon with a White House market on Thursdays (arguably a better idea than its playtime-in-the-potato patch on the South Lawn). However, until there’s greater transparency about where food is coming from and more equal racial and class participation in farmers’ markets, their promise for widespread social transformation falls short. For now, let's make those abundant market-time conversations raise questions about supplemental nutrition programs and who actually picked those peppers.

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