Why I Now Hate Southern California Farmers’ Markets
Posted on April 22, 2015
Every Sunday (sometimes Saturday), my wife and I head down to the farmers’ market in Hillcrest — a neighborhood in San Diego northwest of Balboa Park (one of my favorite places in the world) where a rainbow flag waves at the corner of University Avenue and Normal Street — or in Little Italy — a section of downtown that was once the Italian fisherman’s neighborhood. These neighborhoods are some of my favorite places to visit in San Diego because of their restaurants and general vibrancy, but my wife and I also consider their farmers’ markets two of the best we’ve ever been to in Southern California, even though we love the L.A. markets, too.
(My brother in law always tells a funny story of seeing Lauren Conrad pretending to shop at the farmers’ market in LA for the paparazzi. He said her assistant was holding the bags from the farmers to show she was shopping organic, and as soon as the cameras started snapping, she took the bags out of her assistants hands and started to pretend that she was holding them.)
Honestly, my wife and I really enjoy our weekend trips to either Little Italy or Hillcrest. It’s become a routine for us. We walk in Balboa Park, and then we head to grab food for the week. Before we leave, we grab the reusable bags from underneath the counter, and we drive over to the Hillcrest Market, park a couple blocks away near our favorite breakfast place The Great Maple, and start walking down the the center of the white tents as if we were walking through a bazaar in Game of Thrones.
There really is something about the farmers’ markets that just gets you. I’m not sure if it’s the fresh air, or listening to the desperate food hockers who start yelling to sway you away from the other vendors. (I always go to the people who aren’t yelling at me to try their food.) That strange and exciting tone could also be due to the fact that the vendors all give you free food. Shit, by the time my wife and I go home to cook breakfast (usually a scramble made with some fresh eggs and mushrooms) we’re already full. We filled up on the free samples of the vegan hummus, or the organic guacamole, or the dates from the old red-headed lady who never talks to you just sits in front of her plate of fresh dates, which are precisely sliced, set with toothpicks, and arranged in a perfect circle as if her fruit was just too good not to be eaten (I love that lady, and her dates), or the granola from the grannie who sells her bars with more genuine spunk than Goldie Hawn’s character in Wildcats. (Literally, the other day she told me she would sell me a granola bar any time, any place — even before the market opens or anytime I catch her on the street.)
But even though I love the characters at the farmers’ market, and their delicious pierogis, gourmet local peanut butter, fresh kale and swiss chard, infused salts, goat’s milk gelato, and cold pressed juices, I have to admit something very difficult. I love feeling that I’m healthy, supporting local farmers, and eating organic. I love know that I’m eating straight from the farm to the table, as they say, but I’ve realized something: The farmers’ market is way over priced, and it needs to change in order to create a realistic alternative to the grocery store.
I’m all about buying straight my farmer, and I know that they’re some of the hardest working people in the country, and their hands know strength that my keyboard-striking fingers will never know, but you’re really going to charge me $8 for a dozen eggs? At any grocery store, I can buy a dozen eggs that are organic and cage free for around $4. Why is it double at the farmers’ market? Some of these vendors and business owners charge reasonable prices, but when you’re selling at the farmers’ market, you don’t need to give the grocery store a cut. Perhaps I’m wrong: maybe the farmers’ market takes a cut. But why are the prices higher when there is no middle man? Yes, I get that it’s hard to grow organic crops, but if we’re ever going to be a society that eats healthier and values the lives of animals, then shouldn’t our farmers’ markets be, at least, the same price as the grocery stores who sell organic foods?
In 2011, The Atlantic ran a story that seems to contradict my frustration with farmers’ markets:
“A report released earlier this year by Jake Robert Claro, a graduate student at Bard College’s Center for Environmental Policy who did the study for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, found that prices at farmers’ markets for conventionally grown produce items were lower than they were at supermarkets.”
Clearly this study is old, but it helps contextualize that people have often thought that organic food was more expensive than the conventional farming produce found in many grocery stores. In 2011, The Atlantic said I would be wrong, but I just can’t imagine that same study working today. Perhaps there is just so much demand that farmers have to charge higher prices? Here is what I found: “A January report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that while more farmers are selling directly to consumers, local food sales at farmers markets, farm stands and through community supported agriculture have lost some momentum,” according to NPR.
So the expensive prices in the San Diego farmers’ markets can’t relate to the rising demand, unless San Diego does not correlate with the rest of the country. I still can’t figure it out, and I’m not the only one. Just look no further than celebrity chef Jay Rayner. As reported by the Daily Mail, “The MasterChef star, who also works as a critic for BBC One programme The One Show, said that the overpriced fare sold at local markets is nothing more than a ‘status symbol’ for wealthy shoppers.” The article shows that Rayner went on a tirade because he had to pay £15 for a chicken.
What’s even more shocking is that Pacific Standard Magazine pointed me toward “a study of every farmers’ market in the Bronx [that] finds they are basically boutiques, offering produce that is more exotic, and more expensive, than the grocery stores located nearby. What’s more, their merchandise includes “many items not optimal for good health.” So, it’s more expensive and not even healthy. Okay, something is wrong.
But maybe I’m wrong. And I could be. I could be missing something about the industrial farming complex or something really elaborate behind the scenes, but I am committed to eating healthier and buying directly from farmers. I have bought into the farm-to-table movement, but I’m also done falling for a marketing scheme. I’m done falling for the idea that organic produce, meats, and eggs have to be double the price of grocery stores. In order for our world to be more sustainable and to create a community that supports farmers growing healthy products, there needs to be an economic shift in these white-tent bazaars that we flock to on the weekends.
I would love to hear your comments and insight. These are just observations I had from really looking at what I’m spending at the farmer’s market compared to the food I actually bring home, and I’m just not happy with my analysis. Let me know how you feel about farmers’ markets in the comment section. Also, hope you enjoyed the photos from my recent trip to LACMA. Please take the poll below.