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Snap Peas and Socioeconomic Inequality: the role of farmers’ markets in addressing food insecurity

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Olivia Olson

40 million Americans live in a state of perpetual uncertainty. Food insecurity, the condition that plagues these 40 million, leaves them without consistent access to healthy food or the resources to feed themselves and their families. This hardship manifests itself differently across income brackets and geographical locations–forcing families to skip meals, eat less and with less frequency, depend on unhealthy food options, or struggle to find their next meal.

In urban and rural areas where healthy food is frequently unavailable, those of lower socioeconomic status rely on what is locally available: convenience stores and fast food restaurants. Although they’re great options for stops on road trips, junk food cannot continue to supplant fresh produce as the primary component of anyone’s diet. Sprite, Slim Jims, and chicken nuggets lack the nourishment to support a healthy lifestyle, perpetuating overweight, malnutrition, and obesity in our nation’s poorest citizens.

While adults in the US average a meager serving of fruit and half serving of vegetables a day, “individuals who are provided convenient access to healthy food experience an overall improvement in diet and a decreased incidence of overweight and obesity.” This demonstrates that unhealthy food choices are not reflections of poor self-restraint, rather the lack of options at one’s disposal. Thus combating food insecurity involves the convenient presence of affordable, healthy food–many non-profit organizations, city planners, and activists turn to the farmers’ market as a solution to this plight.

Farmers’ markets sell fresh produce and local delicacies directly to the consumer. In an era of Walmarts and Costcos, farmers’ markets are among the last vestiges of a time when we were more connected to our food, fomenting the palpable sense of community for which they are famous. Consumers have the ability to approach the farmer directly, ask about the conditions in which their product was grown, and gain further valuable insight from those most qualified to answer.

The marketplace enables consumers to become more in touch with the area, the farmers, and the product. Especially in areas of high food insecurity, “farmers’ markets contribute to the health of residents by improving the availability of fresh, nutritious, and affordable food within the community.” In addition to combating issues of healthy food accessibility, farmers’ markets also stimulate the local economy by providing unique and local options.

Government food stamps–now referred to as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)–allow farmers’ markets to be significantly more viable for those living in poverty. “In 2017, approximately 7,377 markets and farmers accepted SNAP benefits,” enabling access to otherwise unavailable fresh fruits and vegetables. When farmers’ markets set up in low-income areas and provide options that make their items more affordable, consumers gain the opportunity to make much healthier choices than their socioeconomic status would otherwise allow.

However, farmers’ markets do not present a comprehensive solution to the food insecurity plaguing millions of Americans. First, the products provided in the markets are not always as healthy or local as purported. Although fresh fruits and vegetables are often available, the markets present “in low-income communities are significantly smaller and have fewer booths compared with those in more affluent communities.” While providing fresh produce is a priority among market managers, the markets in poorer areas “more resemble the offerings at a convenience store than a grocery store” due to competition in prosperous areas.

Moreover, farmers’ market products tend to be more expensive than supermarket options, even with the use of programs such as SNAP. This disparity solidifies that farmers’ markets are only viable for the middle class and up, “even amid efforts” to bring markets to “low-income communities of color.”

Farmers’ markets provide consumers with the opportunity to find fresh, local products, converse with farmers, and feel connected to their community. While farmers’ markets help address issues of food insecurity by utilizing SNAP benefits and making fresh food more accessible, the high prices and affluent locations leave the market as a grossly incomplete solution for the problem plaguing 40 million Americans.

Bedrosian Center