By Joseph Shuldiner
Market Manager, Altadena Farmers’ Market
We were thrilled to be included in last Tuesday’s post, Top Ten Altadena stories of 2012, by Timothy Rutt. In his remarks Tim offered the following observation, “…the high prices [at the Altadena Farmers’ Market] are prohibitive for people who actually live in the neighborhood. This is an issue the market needs to solve.” The following is my response.
A Market is Born
As an original board member of the Arroyo Food Co-op as well as a co-organizer of the Altadena Urban Farmers' Market, I constantly heard pleas for a weekly farmers' market from Altadena's healthy food advocates, political "locavores," home cooks, and even the Town Council. When I accepted the invitation from the County Department of Parks and Recreation to establish a farmers’ market in Altadena, I spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of market it should be. I didn't feel there was any reason to simply replicate something that already existed nearby or to duplicate products already available at existing neighborhood markets. Altadena is not a food desert. We have Super King, Baja Ranch and Ralphs, in addition to many independent mom & pop stores. These markets all provide produce, meats, dairy and pantry staples. What they don't offer is a significant source of pesticide-free produce (whether certified organic or not), nor anything sourced from local farmers in our own neighborhood or the small farmers in our neighboring counties.
All Apples are not Created Equal
It is important to note that all the produce offered at the Altadena Farmers’ Market is of the very highest “A-Grade” quality. Farmers (and supermarkets) classify the quality of produce based on its size, appearance and freshness, "A" being healthy, freshly harvested and beautiful. It is misleading to compare lower-grade produce at other markets to the A-Grade produce I have insisted on at the Altadena's Farmers' Market. (I invite anyone to fact-check prices of produce of equal quality at any competing market.) Caveat Emptor: D-Grade produce artfully displayed in wooden crates, or draped atop burlap under a market canopy may fool the unwitting buyer, but it is not the freshly harvested, A-Grade produce we go out of our way to offer at our market.
Food Justice – Assumption vs. Reality
Since the Market opened, I have occasionally come across unsubstantiated observations, such as Timothy’s, that “people who actually live in the neighborhood” can't afford the products sold at the Altadena Farmers' Market. Some of these observers – who implicitly claim to represent the opinions of the people in the neighborhood – have even suggested that these residents should therefore be provided with lower quality produce at the Market that they can afford. This makes no sense for many reasons, not the least of which is that there are already other sources in the area for industrially grown food. Yes, farmers’ market produce is more expensive than industrialized food. But if the market's prices are prohibitive for people in this neighborhood, I've yet to hear from any of them directly. (My staff and I are at the market regularly, answering questions and talking with a diverse mix of shoppers every week, many of whom tell us they live in the neighborhood.)
I believe that when it comes to the issue of affordability, well intentioned hand-wringing or suggesting that the answer is a two-tiered food distribution system aren't helpful and do nothing to address the very real issue of food justice: the idea that healthful food should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their income.
Leveling the Playing Field
At the Altadena Farmers' Market, we are addressing the issue of food justice head-on. EBT ("Electronic Benefits Transfer," which has replaced food stamps) are now accepted at the Market. Coupled with Farmers' Market Nutrition dollars, Women, Infants and Children (W.I.C.) vouchers and Market Match – a remarkable program sponsored by Hunger Action Los Angeles that will essentially double all of these assistance programs dollar for dollar – the Altadena Farmers' Market is actually doing something to make fresh, high-quality food available to everyone. These programs also help to level the playing field for small farmers who don't receive the taxpayer-funded subsidies given to huge, industrial farms (which serve to create the illusion of “cheap” food).
I believe the work we are doing at the Altadena Farmers’ Market is helping to move us toward a bright food future in which our food is not grown at the expense of our health or the health of our planet, a future in which everyone has access to and can afford to purchase and enjoy healthful food.