Please Stop Shaming Us for Not Shopping at Farmers Markets

published Aug 5, 2023
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Woman Shops for Produce at Farmer's Market
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Recently, a dear friend opened up her fridge to reveal a bounty of local goat cheeses, tubs of artisanal hummus, and tufts of hand-picked microgreens. Maybe outside of a few convenience foods (like pasta or cereal), her fridge was basically a walking advertisement for the local farmers market, nearly like a Kardashian fridge in all its bounty. “Do you feel bad if you don’t buy mostly from the farmers market?” I asked, which she immediately replied with, “Absolutely, yes.” A nerve had been touched.

And she’s not alone. I’ve noticed, amongst the fresh ears of corn and just-ripe berries (and maybe a few well-meaning critters), there’s something else that lingers just beyond these community hubs: a sense of shame. Nobody wants to feel judged for choosing curbside pickup over hand-picked produce. So I got to wondering, in a very Carrie Bradshaw (circa 2000) way, why this converges at the farmers market, exactly. 

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Doing a grocery run is, in fact, something I’ve long felt is way more complicated than we realize (see: why we often side-eye people who don’t return their shopping carts). But the farmers market is a space that is even more charged than a traditional grocer, with the rise of global temperatures putting an increased pressure on how we change our habits in sourcing our food. Plus, unlike a brick-and-mortar grocer, you can literally meet the very same farmer grappling with these environmental pressures, grazing hands with them as you pick out the most perfect bundle of radishes. 

I’ve long believed that much like we might buy a fancy pair of shoes or pay for a just-out-of-budget vacation, we often buy the food for the kinds of people we wish to be. If you go to your local market, maybe you’ve seen similar behavior. The tote bags of “tomato girls,” heavy with hazy cider bottles, beefsteaks, and freckled eggs. And it feels nice to have just returned from the farmers market, your haul neatly arranged in the fridge for future-you. Food, as Antoni Porowski said once of mac and cheese, is incredibly personal, and groceries are certainly included in that truism. If you are what you eat, then you certainly are how (and where) you grocery shop. 

We wouldn’t necessarily shame someone for not shopping at Aldi or Whole Foods, but we all have our grocery allegiances, and the farmers market certainly has its own devotees. And yet, there are plenty of reasons why the farmers market still has a high barrier for entry to many communities. So why exactly does the farmers market bring out the Grocery Police?

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Farmers markets are pricey … and not just for the reason you think.

Once I did some digging, I realized there’s not only many reasons why the pricing at farmers markets is the way it is, but also maybe those prices need to be raised in order to properly compensate farmers dealing with their own rising overheads. Much like any other business, farmers markets can be owned by co-ops or private owners, with permits needing to be paid to parks departments (or local vendors that, say, have an empty parking lot) in exchange for the space these farmers markets use. When you add up fees paid to markets, permits to become certified vendors, park permits, transportation, and the splitting of their labor force across markets, farmers feel a definite strain. To compensate, farmers must raise prices to levels that likely read as more of a “luxury” than “necessity” to many shoppers. 

Many markets across the country double EBT dollars via SNAP benefits, although some vendors say the popularity of this option is slow-going. But even with double-up bucks, the price comparison of farmers market produce to a low-cost grocer like Aldi can be a barrier-to-entry that keeps many low-income shoppers from the market. At the same time, local farmers markets are trying to find new ways to make their produce financially accessible, explains Carrie Havranek, editor of Edible Lehigh Valley. “Most produce vendors will put items on sale when they grow a lot of something or have a bumper crop, or they’ll offer you discounts for larger purchases if you want to freeze things or can them,” she says. 

They can also feel unwelcoming, even in your own backyard.

Especially for farmers markets in urban cities, which are often located in predominantly white spaces, rising rents have led markets to seek more affordable locations in lower-income neighborhoods, unearthing a host of other issues. Numerous recent reports have highlighted that often Black residents do not feel welcome at their local markets, a damaging ripple effect on communities even where patronage is more diverse. “Everybody comes [to the farmers market],” says Alexandra Jones, a writer and cheese educator based in Philadelphia of her market in West Philly, “from the affluent white homeowners … to international students at the university to crust punks to Black elders. What’s not great is that the market has functioned as a symptom and driver of gentrification and displacement of Black people in this neighborhood.”

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The theme-park vibes are a total buzzkill (for shoppers and farmers). 

With razor-thin profit margins already, corporate takeovers of locally owned markets are making it even less viable for farmers and shoppers. In the case of one Southern California farmers market vendor I spoke to, their business permit was sold out from under them (a co-op board) to a private owner via the local parks department, leading to major cuts in the profits of all the farmers selling at the market. While a co-op might take 12% of sales and a $2 small fee per farm stand each week, larger corporate market owners often can take up to half of a small vendor’s sales (whether they sell that week or not!), leading to them only breaking even in profits, causing them to raise prices to stay afloat. 

The farmers’ missions are lost in the bureaucratic shuffle, as well. “As more locations start up and they need to get filled, the quality of the markets drop because there just aren’t enough farmers to fill them,” says Amanda Blum, a microfarmer based in Portland, Oregon. “So they backfill with corporate booths or stuff unrelated to farming, which turns people off.” As many of the vendors I chatted with can attest, when there are flashy bells and whistles at a market (like a rock wall, live music, or other kinds of non-farmed “goods” like candles or handmade jewelry), it’s often a corporate-owned market.

And then there’s the issue of time. And all the extra stops.

Not all of us have the luxury of hitting our favorite market on a Tuesday between 1 and 4 p.m. Especially in working-class neighborhoods, patronage can be at the mercy of traditional work schedules or the schedule of working multiple jobs, leaving locals out of the loop. Plus, coupled with needing to pick up other necessities (say, laundry detergent, dog food, or even a prescription from the grocery pharmacy), your day turns into an all-day grocery fest.

There’s also more than one way to help farmers beyond the market schedule. “Supporting small businesses and co-ops is just as important as shopping at a farmers market — these are the places that nourish our community every day and give producers a regular income,” says Aranita. “Just because I’m not at the market doesn’t mean I’m not ordering from those farmers or picking up last-minute items at Riverwards [a local co-op]. They all come from the same sources.”

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At the end of the day, it doesn’t help anyone to devalue any of the ways we source our food.

Even if you, like me, opt to hit the market just for the top-tier dog-watching, scattered dinner essentials, or a hot bag of Pão de queijo, there’s still an indelible connection being made: “My husband sees our year not broken down like summer, fall, winter, spring,” says Kiki Aranita, the chef and restaurant owner behind Poi Dog and a former food truck vendor at farmers markets in Philadelphia and New York. “But in terms of june berry season, gooseberry season.”

And as for any lingering judgment? It’s time to use that energy for good. “Relax and get over yourself. I’d say to keep shopping at farmers markets, if you can afford it and you like doing it, because they can be vibrant, positive community spaces that help support small businesses in your region,” says Jones. “But consumer behaviors will not save us from climate change or corporate consolidation. Find something useful to direct that anxiety towards that actually helps people.”

Do you shop at your local farmers market? Tell us about it in the comments below.