“Essentially, we have a system where wealthy farmers feed the poor crap and poor farmers feed the wealthy high-quality food.” — Lisa Miller
“You can skimp on some things, but you can’t skimp on food.” — Dorothy Schmalz
by Peter Schmalz
The American food system has come under increasing criticism in the last several decades, during which industrial agriculture has replaced family farms as the major production approach to providing raw foods to processors and consumers. In addition to excessive use of herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics and fertilizers that are harmful to humans, industrial agriculture has generated protests about the ill-treatment of both workers and the land itself. Its only goal seems to be maximized profit, achieved by the exploitation of man and nature. Once raw foods are produced, processors add, subtract, multiply and divide until the results found on supermarket and convenience store shelves bear little resemblance to their components. Also missing from these products is a healthy balance of nutrients, because the processing fulfills the innate human craving for salt, sugar and fat. Traditional diets have too often been overwhelmed by junk food, and the purchase of ready-to-eat has replaced the act of cooking. The health risks of eating a highly processed diet have been known for a long time. Eating the industrial way usually makes you feel stuffed at first, then ravenous for more in a couple hours. The emphasis is on quantity.
The other and smaller contribution to our food system comes from what I call human-scale food. It is produced by small farmers and in our home gardens. It is delivered directly to consumers through farmers markets, community supported agriculture arrangements, farm-to-table restaurants and farm-to-school (or university) programs. In its simplest form, gardeners simply walk out the door and harvest what they need for dinner. Eating human-scale food, which digests more slowly, is satisfying for a longer period of time. The emphasis is on quality.
At this point, reread the first quotation above. Taken from an article titled “Divided We Eat,” Lisa Miller’s memorable statement summarizes the idea that food consumption in America is class-related. More important to our discussion of farmers markets is the perception that “real food” is more expensive than industrial food. The facts seem to support this. Since 1980 the cost of snack food and soda has declined as adjusted for inflation, while that of fresh fruits and vegetables has increased as much as 40 percent.
Now, reread the second quotation above. I heard my mother’s admonition about the value of food constantly throughout my childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Her assertion was that the value of good food is greater than the value of many other things people might spend money on. Let’s dig a little deeper here. My mother grew up as a single child in a working class family on Milwaukee’s south side. Her entire adolescence was spent during the years of the Depression. She learned the value and importance of food, because her family had to forgo possessions in order to put dinner on the table every night. There were no supermarkets. As late as my own childhood, there was a local grocery with very limited products on each corner of my grandparents’ block. My mother’s family grew what they could in their own garden and bought fruits and vegetables in season, and then canned, and canned some more. (The family garden can be a primary source of quality food: During World War II private “Victory Gardens” provided one-third of all produce consumed in the United States.) My mother, as did many of her peers, continued her home canning throughout her adult life – long after canned and frozen foods were available in supermarkets, and long after there was any economic reason to do so. Even then, the results of home processing were less expensive than their store-bought equivalents.
The first dilemma of farmers markets is the perception that food bought directly from the producer is more expensive. To test this theory I engaged in a very limited experiment by comparing what I bought at the Mineral Point Market the last week in July with the cost of the same items at Piggly Wiggly. I spent $31 at the market for a week’s food (well, I did pull a few things from the freezer that week). The same selections in the supermarket would have cost $20. The interesting surprise was that some individual foods cost more at the store. The other consideration is how much a single meal for two would cost at even a moderately priced restaurant. My wife and I could not have eaten more than a single meal with $31 spent at a restaurant. My mother’s choice was to value food more than other things – in a family, food is often the most powerful nonverbal expression of love – and to carry on her quest for quality, regardless of expense.
The second dilemma involving farmers markets is that most of what is sold there (I’m not considering non-food items like arts or crafts) is food in its raw state. Yes, there is processed food in the form of jams, pickles or salsas that can be used instantly. But most purchases must be cooked. Ironically, the abundance of excellent raw food has led to a divide among eaters that is unrelated to cost: those who cook and those who don’t. The cooks have never had it so good, with help and encouragement online, on TV and in magazines and cookbooks, in addition to all those tempting examples of the farmer’s art. Those who do not cook have plenty of choice, including take-out, items requiring only heat, snack food and restaurants, but miss the joy of building their sustenance from scratch.
The third dilemma has been explained in the first two paragraphs of this essay: Some people desire real food that satisfies their ever-developing sense of taste; others prefer foods that deliver immediate salt, sugar or fat satisfaction. Like every other aspect of life, this choice is based on exposure and experience. No one can be enthusiastic about food they have never tried.
In light of all this, it is apparent that farmers markets are not a panacea for the food problems that face us, but do provide a real alternative to industrial food for those who choose to use them. The growth of farmers markets has been significant, climbing from 340 nationally in the early 1970s to more than 8,000 today. Shopping at them encourages thinking about the importance of individual local producers. We can talk to farmers about the challenges of their work, ask them to explain how their products might be used, and thank them for their efforts on our behalf. We can feel good about spending our food dollars in a manner that avoids the costs of wholesalers, retailers and excessive transportation. We know the producers after a few weeks of buying their products, and can hold them accountable for quality in a way that is impossible within the industrial system. Markets also have social benefits; they build community cohesiveness, create opportunities for conversation with other customers, and remind us that we are keeping local farmers in business.
I have been truly peripatetic in doing the research for this article, traveling to all the farmers markets in the Voice of the River Valley distribution area. They are all noble ventures, and represent considerable work on the part of market organizers and vendors. Some are very small, others substantial; some have live music, others only conversation; some have serene locations, others are alongside busy streets. The markets in our area are far smaller than the great granddaddy Dane County market in Madison, but you don’t have to sharpen your elbows before going, and can actually spend time talking to vendors and your fellow shoppers. The local markets are all listed on p. 23 of this issue, with business hours and locations. I encourage you to keep patronizing them if you already do so, enjoying the bounty of the Driftless. If you have stayed away, give farmers markets a try. Take home some of the raw food sold in the market, and cook it. When the food is very fresh, the simplest cooking method is often the best. In eating, as in almost every aspect of life, choosing quality over quantity is the more satisfying and rewarding choice. Food is one of the few essentials of life. Without it, we starve. When we eat well, we thrive.
Peter Schmalz is a retired high school teacher with interests in classical music, philosophy, history, literature, visual arts, model railroading and cooking. He lives in Mineral Point and invites readers to share their own food enthusiasms by contacting him at email@example.com.