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Farmers Markets And Food Deserts: Access And Economics

Editor's Note: Last month Tierney Manning wrote about her research looking at how farmers markets were bringing fresh food to areas of Pittsburgh that previously had little or no access (commonly called 'food deserts'). We asked Tierney if she would respond to a recent piece in the Washington Post about how ease of access was not the only factor affecting availability of fresh food, socioeconomic issues factor in as well. This is her response.

Farmers' markets have been getting high praise from a variety of outlets recently as new locations and vendors have been popping up nationwide.

Researchers Linda Aleci and Douglas Smith of Franklin and Marshall College's Local Economy Center wonder if the growth of farmers' markets is a true testimony to the growth of a robust local food system.

My recent study, as I wrote about before, assumes that distance to the market determines whether or not it is an appropriate location to get fresh and healthy produce. The recent growth in number of locations would then suggest that many more people might have walking access to farmers' markets and thus the ability to support the local food system.

A Complicated Issue

The truth about farmers' market success, and a local food economy, as with many things in life, is perhaps much more complicated than can be explained by a single factor like walking access.

After a successful 2006 and 2007 season, The Eastern Market Farmers' Market in Lancaster, PA, suffered low foot traffic and low sales during the 2008 season. One might immediately point fingers at the September 2008 financial panic that shook families of every demographic, but it's not clear what caused the poor 2008 performance.

According to the 2009 Lancaster Economic Report produced by The Local Economy Center At Franklin & Marshall College, the Lancaster economy actually looks surprisingly resilient to the economic downturn, often doing even a bit better than regional statistics would suggest. Nevertheless, historically Lancaster has had lower-wage jobs, and this time period was no different.

With this knowledge, I have to agree with Aleci's and Smith's hypothesis. Residents with lower wages seem to be looking for ‘bulk buy bargains' and farmer markets just might not be within their budgets anymore.

As a result, farmers' markets may have moved to more affluent areas to seek out the consumers who are still able and willing to buy, and vendor attention may have been diverted from the Lancaster markets to the Philadelphia markets.

Solutions For Lower-income Consumers

I now share Aleci and Smith's concern about socioeconomic equality. Are more markets only serving wealthy areas where foods can be sold for four or five times the price? Thus, forcing out lower-income consumers.

Farmers' markets should not be hindered or penalized for seeking greater profits in these more affluent areas; after all, they're businesses – and tough ones at that.

One possible solution to this dilemma is to call upon the support of the federal government and their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). (Previously known as the Food Stamp Program.)

SNAP serves up federal dollars to provide low- to no-income households with money to buy food.

Your state may have relabeled this program; in Chicago it's called ‘Link' and in Philadelphia they call it ‘Phili Food Bucks', but the idea is the same.

In Chicago, many farmers' markets not only accept the SNAP program, Link, but they like it. Individuals get to buy the market food on the spot and farmers see their money within a week!

This allows individuals who previously didn't have the financial power to purchase fresh and healthy foods to do so, while farmers are able to draw from a larger consumer base. That's what we call ‘win-win'.

What might you find at your local farms this season? Check out this interactive seasonal ingredient map (epicurious).

Questions? Contact me at

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