Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Ethical Price of Farmers Markets, and Supermarkets

It is safe to say that the local food movement is currently going strong in Toronto, and in other regions of North America also. Things are going quite well, the level of organization is impressive, and access is starting to become very significant. Communities and local farmers alike are really starting to believe that this tranformation is a real possibility in the not-too-distant future. What is important when carrying out these chapters of social tranformation is to set up and organize the required foundations, and in this case for the Toronto area local food movment, the alternative structures are in place. There is still some way to go in terms of volume and capacity, but the alternative structures are in place and well defined.

One important issue that needs to be addressed in the face of this growing movement is the financial accessibility of farmers markets and local food. One common claim is that farmers markets are simply too expensive. Intimately tied with this question however is that the price of local organic food is a reflection of justice, equality, and horizontality from community to community. Unrealistically cheap supermarket prices are a reflection of abuse, exploitation, and wage-slavery. Before we start making black and white simplifications of these prices, however, we have to understand what they mean, and where they come from.

Of course, it is a central issue that a single mother, or a multi-children low-income family seems to be able to afford only supermarket prices, and these families should never be morally pressured or bullied to make a consciuos local choice that is not accessible to them. But, there is a misconception in the popular belief, farmers markets are not financially innaccessible as we are led to believe, and we need not abide by these fabricated standards. The reason why poor families fall into this pattern is partly because of misinformation, partly because the industrial system creates and imposes an unethical and exploitative status-quo. All families should never have to make a choice between the supermarket and the farmers market, and no one should be dependent on the industrial system; local, organic, sustainable, and community-driven horizontal food systems should be absolutely accessible to everyone, everywhere. It is the systemic and structural injustices that need to be transformed.

Before saying that farmers markets are expensive, or if we think supermarket prices are fair, we have to understand that industrial production prices do not represent the true cost of production. Without getting too deep into the nature of social relations within wage-labour and industrial production, take for example when you buy a sweater at Wal-Mart and you pay only $15 for it; the reason why you get it so aritificially cheap is because someone is paying the real price for it in Bangladesh with a miserable life. This is called externalising costs. In the North American food system, a very similar social relation of privilege and exploitation recreates itself on a local level, and while wage-labour conditions are not as exploitative, the true costs are instead more heavily outsourced and concentrated through devastation to the environment.

Furthermore, the financial inaccessibility narrative is overblown, and in many cases not properly examined. Firts of all, fruits and vegetables have similar prices at farmers markets and supermarkets; local organic fruits and vegetables can vary greatly in price depending on who and where you get it from, which is the same with supermarkets. Certain dairy products can be slightly more expensive, but even this is occasionally, not always, and the price really underscores the quality of the food you are buying and consuming. The price of bread is also relatively the same; at the farmers market, artisan bread is more expensive, which again is the same situation at the supermarket.

White bread and the generic whole wheat kind are less expensive of course, but they are more akin to paper and foam than actual bread, and eating artificial products is not healthy for anyone. This bread melts in your mouth like styrofoam melts in the microwave, that is not normal. This bread is white, bright snow-white; let`s bleach our food, let`s bleach all the natural colour out of our food, and try to make our food to be as unnatural as possible, that`s a great idea. So yes, food can be cheaper when its not real food, when its processed and broken down, but that should not be an incentive for anybody. A lot of it comes down to the fact that you`re either buying food that is healthy, vs. food that is not healthy.

And, selected cheaper items do not mean cheaper grocery bills. Cheaper grocery bills at the supermarket? Let`s think about this for a second. Most people who shop at the supermarket are not just running in to grab the essentials. You have the chips, and the ice cream, and the cookies, the Fruit Loops, and the chocolate milk, and the six different kinds of sugar-loaded juices, and the extreme fajita pizza-poppers, whatever that stuff is. I`m not saying that everybody rampages on junk food and rings up $200 grocery bills, but I am saying that most people don`t save money when they go to the supermarket with twenty thousand items to choose from, they just buy more stuff. Splurging at the farmers market involves buying a specialty cheese, those bright-orange beets that you didn`t really need, and a couple selections of wild garlic. Besides, it`s a good thing to spend a little bit extra at the farmers market because you`re supporting and sustaining a good, natural, positive food system, versus one that is destroying the planet wholesale, no pun intended.

And, for argument's sake, if we're really counting dollars and cents, let's take time to rethink our general spending habits in this money-sponge consumer society. Starting with kids, absurd amounts of lavish toys, super-wardrobes, and the brutal and exacting world of video games. And then the adult world of leasing new cars every four years, expensive clothing, the service and entertainment industries, and modern electronics and technology that is so amazingly advanced with sufficient depth and variety to substitute life itself. This 21st century consumer society is insanity. I am not advocating a consumption-less idealistic fantasy world because I know that is not possible, nor am I against technology as long as it is used for the right reasons and for practical, productive purposes, but there are countless dozens of useless consumer products that we could easily do without, and subsequent hundreds and thousands of dollars wasted that could be spent on far more valuable things. If we factor that into the cost of living, then spending a few extra dollars on food seems like a pretty reasonable thing to do. The future requires a radical realignment and reprioritizing of our consumption habits.

Here's to squashing the rumour that farmers markets are too expensive, or in most cases, even more expensive. And, even if they are sometimes slightly more expensive, maybe its time we start paying the true cost of production of the food we eat. Say hypothetically we pay 3 dollars for potatoes instead of 2, and in exchange we get small-scale, local, organic production that keeps the planet sustainable and the ecological systems safe and healthy for generations to come, which allows us to maintain our ability to grow food well into the future. I think thats a pretty reasonable trade off, one that is difficult to argue against.

With these growing methods, we also get an opportunity to operate horizontally in the spaces of everyday life. Horizontality exists first on these local farms where the food is grown and produced small-scale, organically, and sustainanbly, with a small group of workers who work together along collectivist principles; these micro-farms, workers, and cooperatives are creating an alternative non-hierarchical work model, a people-centric model that embraces creativity and food diversity. Second, horizontality takes place at the market level where people get a chance to talk to their farmers, and to obtain information about who makes the food, where it comes from, and how it is made; a relationship is built with transparency and dialogue through the exchange of food. Community is cultivated through an inclusive and reciprocal process.

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