Everyone’s market?

mangoes with $4/box sign
Cheap surplus food clouds the mind even when your grade depends on questioning it. Image: Wikimedia Commons

I just finished grading the final papers from a big introductory class on food systems, in which I’ve been trying to leave students with some sense of the economic realities of our current system: the higher costs and prices of food produced on a smaller scale, the reasons for overproduction and waste, the near-impossibility of making money selling food unless you do it at a huge scale and/or sell something else along with it – snow rakes, delivery services, Prime memberships.

For the final assignment, students had to go out and shop at two very different markets and write a critical comparison. One of the possible pairs I gave them – a no-brainer, to anyone familiar with Boston’s market scene – was the weekend pushcart Haymarket and its newer neighbor, the indoor Boston Public Market.

Haymarket has been around for a long time. It’s noisy, crowded, smelly, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, and very beloved by many people. Most of my students loved it, too. One of them described it as “everyone’s market.”

They did not love the Boston Public Market, and that’s got me worried about whether the local-food trend of the past couple of decades might be in danger of running out of momentum. By and large, my students did a pretty good job of thinking about the very different supply chains for the two markets – one selling produce picked up at a deep discount from wholesale terminals where space is being cleared for the next week’s shipments from California or Guatemala, the other specializing in food produced and processed here in Massachusetts. But they still had a hard time dealing with the stark differences in price – five apples for a dollar outside, $2.49 a pound inside.

A few students did grasp and accept that the higher prices reflected an attempt to source regionally while creating local jobs that pay something close to a living wage. But almost none reflected an understanding of how that reality inherently constrains who the Boston Public Market does and can market itself to. They bounced right off the “bougie” vibe, cynical about the motivations behind it and assuming – as so many shoppers do when confronted by the reality of what it actually costs to produce good food close to home – that the higher prices meant someone was getting rich along the way.

More troubling yet, the Boston Public Market is of course hoping to attract customers exactly like my students: well-educated, generally affluent, concerned about food and environmental issues. I’ve more or less given up on leading with the discussion about food prices at our local food coop, but I was hoping that raising it critically in an educational setting would be a way to make more headway against the entrenched expectations – and entrenched suspicions about sophisticated and manipulative marketing – created by the food system that everyone my age and younger has grown up within.

I think I made a little progress with that this fall. That it fell so far short is probably not a reflection of either my teaching or my students’ abilities, but rather of the depth of the challenge of getting people to see, feel, and accept what an actual alternative to supermarket shopping might look like.

I’m hearing a lot of discussion lately in food movement circles about the sense of having hit a wall with expanding the consumer base for more locally-produced food, and this fall’s experience underscores that. If we’ve tapped the existing market and the people who logically should be embracing the alternatives don’t seem to be getting it, where do we go from here?

7 months ago

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