The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

What Killed The Anacostia Farmers Market?

December 9th, 2009 · 4 Comments · Posted in politics, Wellness

A worthy goal, but not enough business to survive

A worthy endeavor, but not enough business to survive

Has there ever been a time when more attention was paid to what poor people eat?

Cheap food–and I would argue cheap, refined carbohydrates above all–are blamed for a national epidemic of obesity and diabetes and nowhere has the scourge of modern diseases hit harder than among the poor. It stands to reason, then, that getting poor people to eat better food will help cure what ails them. Thus, food advocacy groups such as the Capitol Area Food Bank search for ways to improve the quality–not just quantity–of food options. In an effort to bring fresh produce to the diets of residents east of the Anacostia River, an area notorious as a “food desert,” the food bank operated and underwrote a farmers market in the historic Anacostia neighborhood.

Eventually, however, the food bank could no longer keep this losing proposition afloat. Writing in the DC Food for All blog, Jody Tick, who was responsible for running the farmers market, cited many reasons for its closing. The intent had always been to turn the market over to a neighborhood group, but no such group came forward. Meanwhile, the food bank scoured the country for best practices in running a farmers market. “You name it, we tried it,” Tick writes. Still, no go.

According to news accounts at the time, the market was only drawing about 120 customers each week; the average purchase was only $4, even though the market was among the few in the city to accept food stamps. That’s hardly enough to support the farmers who are the market’s primary vendors.

Yet Tick writes that it wasn’t just lack of interest that hurt the farmers market but a kind of food literacy gap. Older residents were still cooking vegetables with the knowledge handed down from days on the farm back south. The younger generation, meanwhile, seemed to have no clue, or lacked the tools for cooking. Consequently, the food bank has focused its efforts on teaching people healthier cooking, and on introducing children to growing and preparing their own food through gardening.

It seems like an awfully tough assignment, breaking an entire generation of bad food habits. Meanwhile, in the New York Times, food bloggers were asked to sound off on the federal government’s food stamp program and what that means for healthy eating. Part of the debate over food stamps centers on whether poor people can be trusted with cash, and whether their food choices under the program should be restricted to “healthful” food.

Applying for food stamps can be incredibly burdensome. Only about two-thirds of those eligible for food stamps actually apply. In San Diego, writes one of the bloggers, that rate is less than 30 percent. The application involves five trips to the local processing center. Every adult in the home must be fingerprinted. And the applicant’s house is subject to searches by the district attorney’s office.

Some jurisdictions are so fiercely bent on requiring that food stamp recipients eat only healthful foods they are striking many traditional foods from the food stamp diet. In Washington state, for instance, guidelines for food subsidies prohibit potatoes, yogurt, canned vegetables and vegetables juices.

Perhaps diet is not something that can be so easily legislated. Some believe we have created an underclass that is forced to eat the worst our agriculture has to offer. Food continues to get cheaper relative to income. Americans now spend less than 10 percent of what they earn on food, the lowest rate in the world. But relative wages also continue to decline for many American workers. Over at Grist, Tom Philpott argues that a cheap diet is a natural consequence of policies aimed at keeping wages low. When jobs are shipped overseas, when the people who harvest our food live below the poverty line, cheap, unhealthy food is sure to follow.

“In short, an economy hinged on cheap labor needs cheap food,” Philpott writes. Are we headed for a permanently bifurcated food system in which one class eats from farmers markets while another eats what it can afford and gets sick? Perhaps food stamp dollars should count for more at farmers markets, or when buying fresh produce at the grocery store. According to Philpott, trying to make organically grown greens and fruits accessible to everyone may be just a pipe dream without reshaping the entire economy.

Now that’s a tall order.

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  • mcmusser

    You can bring people all the organic, local food that farms can grow, but if they don’t know how to cook it, it’s just compost. I hear about this all the time, and not from people without resources, but from those who can afford a weekly CSA box. What we need, as much as farmers who can grow good food and markets where people can buy it, is education about how to deal with real food. While cooking classes for kids is great, their parents need help as much or more.

  • Sylvie

    as you know Ed I teach people to cook from from what’s available locally at the moment, i.e. in season. It’s been interesting to see what people do not know. There is indeed a big gap in knowledge, and some of them from women old enough to be my mother. And I deal with a relatively affluent clientèle who has the disposable income to pay for cooking lessons. The stuff I hear from volunteer at the food bank (if it does come from a can people truly do not know what to do with it) is beyond sad.

    There is a lot of work to relearn of this, and not to give-in to the industrial cheap food that makes you sick in the long run.

  • Ed Bruske

    Chris & Sylvie, my wife is convinced that the only way forward is to integrate gardening and cooking into school curricula, beginning at the earliest ages. They are requiring cooking instruction at the high school level in England now. I know from teaching my own food appreciation classes that kids are eager to learn about food and will embrace foods that they might otherwise reject if exposed in a group setting with hands-on learning opportunities. People have simply become estranged from where their food comes from and how it is prepared. Why this should be especially so among the poor–who stand to benefit most by growing and cooking their own–is a real cunundrum.

  • Nato

    Another viewpoint about what killed the Anacostia Farmers’ Market. Stumbled across, for the first time, “Flavor” magazine. In the Dec./Jan 2010 issue, there’s an article entitled “Making It Happen” by Zora Margolis. The article is about Tanikka Cunningham who believes everyone in her neighborhood should have access to fresh food.

    A quote from the article follows.

    Cunningham explains why the Anacostia farmers market closed after a year. Most of the market ‘s produce came from the same gleaning program that supplies D.C. area food banks and programs that feed the homeless. “If you usually give this to the food banks basically for free, because it is second quality, why ask people to pay for it?” asks Cunningham. “Our thought is that the best food should be available and affordable to the people in this community.”