Pick farmers markets – don’t pick on them
Do you buy from farmers’ markets? Are they a sustainable alternative to supermarket domination or, as recent media reports would have you believe, an expensive luxury?
Farmers’ markets in the UK have been on the rise since the first one opened in Bath in 1997. Is this success as result of people wanting better quality, fresher produce, to support small producers and family farms who were going out of business due to the dominance of supermarket buying policies? Or is this because shopping at markets is a status symbol for the pretentious, wealthy and trendy? The ‘build them up and knock them down’ mentality of the British tabloid press has led to some unfavourable coverage for markets recently. A couple of weeks ago there was an article by Rose Prince in the Daily Mail. ‘Have you been duped at the farmers’ market?’ screams the headline. This was a follow-up to an equally incendiary piece quoting Jay Rayner who accused farmers’ markets as being ‘costly’ and ‘for snobs’.
Last Saturday I visited Stroud Farmers’ Market which was celebrating its 15th birthday in operation. They sky was grey, there were frequent showers, but the market was packed with a variety of shoppers enjoying the atmosphere, tasting and shopping. This used to be a place where you would never contemplate leaving the ring road. The town centre is now full of interesting independent shops. We enjoyed a cup of tea in one of several cafés which were all doing good business. When interviewed in a local paper, market co-founder Kardien Gerbrands (known as Gerb) recalls “When we started the Made in Stroud shop in 2000 we used to have a joke about whether this year’s tourist had been in. Nowadays we have tourists in all week.’
Because I’m away from home I’m not in charge of the shopping and cooking, my purchases from the market were few and could be considered luxuries not staples. I bought local cherries from a stall that only sells one type of fruit each week from their fruit farms which changes through the season. I tasted and bought some of the best charcuterie I have ever eaten made from good quality, local pork. A vegetarian millet and onion bake was carried home for veggie teen. The vegetables on display had been picked that morning and the choice was amazing. I bought some creamy, new potatoes coated with earth (the ones we’d had from the supermarket were like bullets). The produce available was abundant, fresh and varied. There was quality and variety I had not seen in the supermarket, plus by shopping this way the supply chain is shorter (the opaque and complex way most of our food is bought and sold accounts for scandals such as the horse meat affair).
The findings of Channel 4’s recent the World’s Best Diet demonstrated that the best diets were the ones that consisted of the least processed foods. Looking at the range of produce available at the market, you might conclude that Britain should be in the top ten, but take a glance at the stock and promotions in supermarkets. It’s estimated that just 1% of men and 2% of women were obese in the 1960s (when there were very few supermarkets) compared to a quarter of the UK population today.
On the day after the Stroud market, I visited another town in Gloucestershire which could do with some TLC. Co-op dominates the shopping choice for food and I wanted some bread for our picnic. There were rows of Chorleywood method, mass-produced sliced bread in plastic (mainly white or blends) or bread rolls that were so stale they were rock solid. I could not buy edible, healthy, wholemeal bread rolls or a small loaf; the choice was simply not available for any price.
Supermarkets have been taken to task by the media in the past, so why should farmers’ markets be immune? Here’s Gerb’s response on Twitter to the Jay Rayner article:
If this blog post seems like commentary from a wealthy ‘snob’ then I hold my hands up and admit to being one. I am privileged to have enough money to make the choice to buy better quality produce; but why should good food (fresh, unprocessed and healthy) be available only to those who can afford it? I grew up in an era before supermarket domination within a family where money was very tight. We wore second-hand clothes and didn’t have a car or a telephone; but we ate really well. Our diet followed these principles long before Michael Pollan coined the phrase “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It was an economic choice; could we eat that way now on a similar budget?
I think the tone of the recent articles is a kind of snobbery. There wasn’t a Range Rover to be seen near the Stroud market; just members of a community enjoying a market that has brought countless benefits to the town and environment. The BBC Food Programme has documented initiatives where veg box schemes have given local people access to cheap, fresh, local vegetables and fruit. These schemes are run by people who want a change in the way we live; in contrast to the ‘big four’ which are driven by share holder value. Industrialisation of the food supply has been held up by some as the only way to feed the masses but it doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job right now; a third of the world’s food is wasted.
As a tourist to the Stroud market you may think my commentary is not as valid as those who live, work and shop there regularly. However, the farmers’ market where I buy my weekly veg every single week of the growing season has also been under the cool gaze of Rose Prince and The Daily Mail. I met Rose Prince while she was shopping there although the images printed in article are from the fruit and vegetable stalls next to the fish market in Deira (where they do sell imports from the region) not the market at Emirates Towers (where the produce is all locally grown in the U.A.E); the title of the article inaccurately describes the market as ‘sort of local’. Shopping direct from the growers saves me money as it is much cheaper than the supermarkets (for freshness there is no comparison). While I do not agree with a lot of what Jay Rayner says, his comments have been taken out of context by the Daily Mail. He does champion ‘big food’ including supermarkets as the only answer; treating food as a commodity is why we are seeing so many problems – read this if you want to know why I think he’s wrong. Also, many market traders have answered back to this well publicised article.
So I’m raising a glass and a cheer for the 15th birthday of Stroud Farmers’ Market and all the producers of good food and produce. It will take more than these few articles to change my mind about farmers’ markets but will their negativity have an impact on others? What’s your experience of farmers markets?
It was raining when I visited last weekend so didn’t take my big camera and all pics are on my iphone. To see more, read an earlier post about the Stroud Farmers Market.