Posted on November 12, 2009 - by

The Local Foods Movement and the Recession

By Khaled Allen
Originally posted on Farm to Table

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The Sustainable Food Movement Gains Momentum

We all know that locally grown sustainable food is better for us and the environment, but it often seems to be bad for our wallets. Even though foodies are willing to go to extreme lengths to support good food, will mainstream America ever do so?

With the country’s economy in shambles, paying three dollars per pound for organic potatoes seems ridiculous. As a recent college graduate, I have to carefully weigh the cost of eating responsibly.

I have been told that my dedication to sustainable, local agriculture, while praiseworthy, will never displace our mainstream food system because of the increased costs, that sustainable eating is a luxury. I have been told that conventional agriculture was the most responsible way to feed the growing population. This opinion is proffered by those who view sustainable food as a fad. As long as it does not interfere with conventional agriculture, it is nice to have around, but should not be thought of as the central way to feed the country. Economics would win out in the end, and people would vote with their wallets. And yet, this attitude did not mesh with my recent experience.

The sustainable food movement seems to be gaining momentum, despite the recent and crushing recession. What better time to test peoples’ dedication to revamping the food industry than during a recession?

Investigating at the source

I headed to several local farmers’ market to ask the farmers themselves how the economy was impacting their businesses. What I found was that farmers and farmers’ markets are actually doing very well.

lizards 300x225 The Local Foods Movement and the RecessionMost of the farmers I spoke with said that the recession has not impacted their business at all. A representative of Riverbank Farm, an organic farm in Roxbury, Connecticut, cited consumers’ growing concern with healthy food as sufficient motivation for them to frequent her farm’s stand. She did point out, however, that the local community was fairly wealthy, and that fact might impact peoples’ food purchasing choices. Another farmer, however, said that he travelled to farmers’ markets all over the state and had done well at all of them, regardless of the affluence of the local community.

Not every farmer I spoke with was doing so well. One organic farmer felt that consumers treated local produce as a luxury, and spent their extra cash on other things, or bought cheaper food to compensate. A farmer from Middlebury, Connecticut gave a different reason for his farm’s difficulties: an increase in the number of farmers’ markets. According to him, because consumers now have more flexibility in when they get their produce, they are less likely to visit any particular farmers’ market, unwittingly hurting individual farmers.

While this development might be a bad thing for the farmer, it is a good sign for the movement as a whole, indicating an increased interest in locally grown produce and a consumer base large enough to sustain growth in farmers’ markets. This farmer also voiced his opinion that while people may be cutting back generally, he felt that they were buying proportionately more local food.

Letting Farmers Earn a Living

Nevertheless, it is important that individual farmers are able to make a living so they may survive and continue growing healthy, sustainably-raised food. If they have to drop their prices so low that they can’t make a living, it benefits the consumer in the short run, but those farmers than run the risk of losing their business.

The shoppers I spoke with were aware of this fact but rather than citing difficult economic times as a reason to look elsewhere for cheaper food, many actually pointed out that it was encouraging people to spend extra money on local food, to help local farmers get through the recession. As one shopper put it, “we definitely make more of an effort…we try to help them [local farmers] out when they’re trying to do something we consider beneficial. If times are tough, I’d rather give them the money than someone else.” This attitude was shared by a number of shoppers.

This is a great example of responsible shopping; being aware of how one’s economic activities impact other people is the first step. Going out of one’s way to ensure that impact is positive is a natural evolution of that first step. These shoppers cited a variety of reasons for their choices, the main ones being a concern with health and responsible agriculture practices. They cared enough about these ideals to spend more money than they would otherwise have to.

There were limits however. While one shopper was more than happy to spend $9 on a loaf of artisan bread, acknowledging the ridiculously high price, but admitting it was better bread, another set his limit at double the supermarket cost for the same produce.

Overall, the impression I got was that farmers are either doing better or similar business compared to pre-recessionary levels. Shoppers have not decreased their spending on locally raised food. People are actually using the recession as a reason to spend more on locally grown food, in order to support farmers and help them weather the economy. If this is the sustainable food’s movement’s response to difficult times, then it seems that maybe our long sought after goal of change in consciousness has finally arrived. A movement that thrives when times are tough can only get stronger when things get easier, and it is clear that people are making decisions not with their wallets, but with their hearts and minds as well.

This post was written by Khaled Allen, a graduate of the University of Chicago who lives in Stamford, CT, and pursues sustainable eating to fuel elite fitness training. He blogs at http://khaledallen.wordpress.com/

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    December 7, 2009

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    Jim Dumas said:

    Nice article Khaled. it’s good to see young folks getting involved in this movement. I am a grower in AZ. and would like to confer that our farmers markets in the Tucson AZ. area are definitely holding their own in this rough economy. One of the bad things about our area is that there are not enough growers to supply demand for fresh, local food. We can barely keep up with supplying the markets that we do and more markets are springing up all over. We have plenty of room to expand on our farm but we have to go slow due to money and time restraints. Folks need to realize that if we continue to leave our food choices in the hands of big Gov. and big buisness, we may one day find we no longer have a choice in what we eat or how much we can have.(if any) Blessings, Jim Dumas Cochise, AZ.