by Slow Food USA staffer Sheila Karaszewski
During a recent trip back home to Michigan, I was once again reminded of one of the most vital tenets in the fight for a good, clean, and fair food system – the importance of voting with your dollar. You see, living in New York City can sometimes spoil us sustainable food supporters. We have year-round farmers markets offering a plethora of fresh produce, CSA’s, plenty of farm-to-table restaurants and artisanal food shops galore. Oh, and let us not forget the Brooklyn DIY food scene. In fact, it’s pretty darn easy to vote with your dollar here. But that’s not the case in many other towns and cities, which makes it that much more important to remember to spend our money on the food we want to see more of.
Case in point: Michigan has a rich agricultural history and is only second to California in terms of agricultural variety. However, many farmers markets lack the full support necessary not only to hold markets more often, but also to offer the level of variety that continues to draw consumers in. It ends up being a catch 22 – consumers need variety and convenient market hours for them to remain loyal to the market, but in order for that to happen, farmers need consumers to show up in the first place.
I visited the local market on my first day in Michigan, excited to buy loads of gorgeous produce to bring back to cook in my parents’ un-NYC kitchen (counter space, a complete set of pots and pans, and a full stove? Imagine!) The produce was in fact gorgeous, but what struck me most was that we were amongst such a small crowd of people, especially for it being both Friday and the only market day of the week. My curiosity was piqued and as I began to ask questions, I gleaned some insight into the dynamics of the situation. What I heard over and over was that while the community residents appreciated the market and found the offerings to be more flavorful than what was at local grocery stores, most did not visit regularly because of the inconvenient hours and lack of variety. This in turn prevented the farmers from being able to set up shop more frequently because they simply couldn’t justify time away from the fields for such little profit, nor could they afford to grow more variety. The irony of the situation is that the two main reasons consumers had for not frequenting the market were the two variables farmers could change if only they had more consumers to serve, thus making it economically viable for them to do so. Interestingly, consumers did not complain about price as it was comparable to the local superstore, nor did they complain about the overall experience as it was undeniably more satisfying than pushing a cart with a wayward wheel through the fluorescently lit aisles of an anonymous grocery store.