Are foodies also greenies?

Luke Craven asks why we shop at inner city farmers markets. Is it because we care about sustainability and fair pay for agriculture workers, or do we just like the taste?

Over the last decade, the inner suburbs of big cities have become new frontiers for food localism. Every weekend, cities all over the world come alive with farmers markets, community garden activism and restaurants and cafes that proudly market own-grown, local food.

Many of these movements have developed out of historical social justice and environmental campaigns and struggles. What is it, though, that sustains food localism? It might be rooted in a progressive past, but does localism have a consumerist future?

London isn’t new to me; I’ve passed through the city a handful of times over the years. Food has always been but one part of the city’s allure. On my most recent trip, though, food was my purpose. I visited nine farmers markets, two city farms, five locavore restaurants and more hipster cafes than you can shake a stick at. All shared a desire to shorten the food chain in one respect or another, but what role environmentalism plays in this narrative isn’t immediately clear.

During my visit to one market, I stopped by the Chegworth Valley produce stall where a sign boasted the “beneficial insects” that growers used to produce healthy, organic plants. The strange thing about the sign is that Chegworth Valley clearly eschews ‘green’ values. But, for some reason, those values lie slightly below the surface of their marketing pitch. I had expected stall-holders to be more forthcoming in the display of their values.

Perhaps it’s unfair to single out Chegworth Valley in this way, given they’re certainly not alone. Of the 58 stallholder signs I recorded, only two made reference to being ‘green’ or ‘environmental’. Organic producers were slightly more willing to boast of their environmental credentials, but not by much.

It’s no secret that inner city farmers markets serve a largely well-to-do clientele, but what motivates this client base is an open question. For some, it may be that the environmental aspects of food localism spur their enthusiasm. At the same time, it is difficult to deny that, for others, shopping at a farmers market is simply part of a broader foodie culture. I suspect that many markets are wary of over-doing the environmental angle. Their hope is probably that being ‘local’ says enough about their green credentials.

Indeed, many of London’s farmers markets are just as much about street food as they are about local produce. The inner city farmers market is run just like any other business. Despite this, others have noted that farmers’ market participants cast their economic and just sustainability priorities as wholly compatible. However, it seems that sometimes vendors sacrifice the latter to make way for the former. Markets make a conscious choice to establish themselves in wealthier areas, just as vendors make a choice to sell at particular markets, and it’s unclear how this business model aligns with environmentalism and social justice goals.

Environmentalism has a part to play too; it just lurks below the surface. At one market, I observed a vendor passionately invoking his environmental credentials to a customer who wanted to know more about the produce than whether it was ‘local’ or ‘organic’. Such passion speaks to localism’s progressive origins – origins that, for vendors, are likely hard to escape. To grow local food is to believe in local food.

But, whether the same is true of consumers is a more complex question. And it’s a question that is at the core of new research being undertaken here at the Sydney Environment Institute. David Schlosberg and I are working to understand the growth, popularity and potential of sustainable food movements in the UK, US, and here in Australia. If environmentalism ever did play a role for consumers, where is it now?

Luke Craven is a PhD student in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. His research is concerned various aspects of the immigrant and refugee experience, with a focus on food, health and everyday life. He also assists SEI co-director Professor David Schlosberg on a new project that examines the rise of new sustainable movement groups that orient themselves around food, energy, and other basic needs.