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A downside to farmers market growth

Does the exploding number of farmers markets signify a robust local food system? New research suggests that it is only some wealthier urbanites who are benefiting.

The evidence comes from a case study of the Eastern Market in Lancaster, Penn. Linda Aleci and Douglas Smith, researchers at Franklin and Marshall College’s Local Economy Center, have been tracking the market’s vendors and sales since it opened in 2006.

The Eastern Market is located in an area with a high concentration of poverty: the median household income is less than $18,000, and 33 percent of residents live below the poverty line, compared to 21 percent of all city residents.

The Saturday morning market’s first two seasons were promising. Although there were a small number of vendors – six in 2006, eight in 2007 -- foot traffic grew 30 percent in the first year and total revenues jumped 33 percent. Managers projected an additional 40 percent growth for 2008 and added a Wednesday afternoon market to help meet demand.

But the momentum was lost in 2008, the authors report. Foot traffic was sluggish, and it was difficult to retain vendors as sales dipped.

The usual analysis would blame the market managers; new markets often face administrative and marketing challenges. But Aleci and Smith blame a broader, more troubling issue for the market’s struggles, namely that new markets in more affluent, metropolitan areas siphoned vendors away from the lower-income Eastern Market. By 2008, half of the farmers had relocated from the Eastern Market to new Philadelphia metro markets or expanded their operations to service higher-paying customers. Surveys show that Lancaster farmers can sell their food for four to five times as much in urban markets as they can close to home.

It would be easy to say: So what? If the farmers are selling in Lancaster and Philadelphia, isn’t that better for everyone? The authors say no. When farmers sell at multiple markets, it diverts foot traffic. It’s only a matter of time before the market attracts only lower-income families, who cannot pay a premium for locally grown produce.

Paradoxically, the authors conclude, “as the Eastern Market comes closer to achieving its mission to serve ‘the underserved,’ it also becomes economically more vulnerable. That part of the Eastern Market customer base which, by virtue of income, mobility, education and the like, is essential to its economy, also has a choice as to where to purchase food. And like many former vendors, apparently, it has begun to move on.”

The authors caution that this research is preliminary. But the work raises important questions. Many studies have shown that local food can help to boost the local economy. But that's not true if the money is funneled to big cities. In addition, many policymakers use the growth of farmers markets as a proxy for the growth of local food systems. This paper suggests that keeping food in communities requires new policies and supports.

“If we really want farmers markets to perform as engines for community food security, we cannot pretend that they exist outside the social and economic structures of the modern marketplace,” the authors conclude. “We must begin, now, to reimagine new paradigms for policy and planning that bring together the economies of food and justice.”

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  July 20, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Sustainable Food  | Tags: Jane Black, farmers markets, local food  
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