Farmers markets, real food, real living, and the deathly sprawl of America

It’s been a long time since Americans have thought of Farmers Markets as a normal way to buy food.  On my recent trip to Eastern Europe I had the chance to experience Farmers Markets in a different way, with huge market operations that are open every day as opposed to the tiny operations in the U.S. that open once a week, maybe.  It takes a certain cultural context to support the existence of a large farmers market that’s open every day, one that perhaps used to be common in the US but was lost on the series of events that brought us giganto-sized mega-super-dooper-markets like Walmart or Sams Club or Costco.

A recent article on Salon.com is a great discussion of some of the issues, comparing the large traditional farmers market with the “resurgence” of farmers markets in the US.  I recommend reading that article, but also reading on with this one as well.  I also wrote up two previous blog posts about the trip – The benefits of walkable communities and local foodA busy intersection shows walkable living, local food

This market is in a medium sized city (300,000 people) yet it was HUGE.  So big that I felt overwhelmed and unable to capture the whole thing in one picture.  So here is just one little snippet of the market.  One vegetable stall out of maybe a hundred stalls in the market.  And that’s just the vegetable stalls.  This market also had a whole section for meat sellers, another section for cheese sellers, and a big selection of shops selling random stuff like clothing or other supplies.

Having visited several markets during that month in the country, I got a palpable sense of “community”.  That is, the market felt like a real living entity in its own right.  We had valuable and heart-touching conversations with the market stall vendors, each of which was a small business operator in their own right.

We were buying food directly from people who directly represented the farmer.  That felt very much “real” in a way that picking produce in a regular American-style grocery does not feel.  The produce section in an American grocery store sort of mimics the farmers market, but feels completely sterile compared to these markets.

The market is located smack in the middle of regular neighborhood infrastructure, as you can see from this Google Maps screen capture.  The market is the square stuff in the middle of the picture.  At the bottom is a major road, along which are apartment and office buildings.  (browse the map yourself)  Behind the market is a neighborhood full of houses.

As I said – these markets felt “alive”.  One reason for that is that the market is tightly integrated into the neighborhood, and forms an integral part of daily life for most of the residents.

This close-in shot of the market shows the main building (at the bottom), some of the surrounding market activities, the cheese building (if I recall right, the upper right) and so on.  One thing I find interesting is the car park area at the top of the picture.

Notice how the car park is small, while I can guarantee you that the market itself is crowded.  There was a couple times in the market where I got overwhelmed by the crowd in front of a particular vendor stall, and had to escape to a quieter aisle.  How can they operate such a large busy market with such a small parking lot?

In the US, zoning rules require that parking lots outside a shopping center to be sized to handle the biggest traffic of the year – typically Christmas, right?  That’s why suburban shopping centers have big huge swaths of parking lot that sits empty most of the year.  What a waste of land, eh?  How this market gets away with being so crowded yet having a small parking lot is simple – everyone walks to the market.

The people who drive to the market are the vendors, not the shoppers.

This requires that the market is tightly integrated with the neighborhood so that people can effectively walk to the market.  Further, the surrounding neighborhood had better have relatively high population density so that there’s enough people who can walk to the market to support the market’s existence.  Any market, whether a farmers market or not, requires a density of traffic to provide the sales necessary to pay for the market and make a profit.

In other words – this sort of market is very much foreign to modern American cities.  In Modern America the assumption is that we’re driving everywhere.  Therefore, every shopper arrives by car, and needs a place to park the car.  Further the parking lot has to be safe, and therefore well lit, which leads to the light pollution that keeps us from seeing the star-lit sky.  Satisfying the requirement that parking lots are sized to handle the largest parking demand of the year (Christmas) leads to a certain geometry of american suburban/urban design.

Geometry in the sense of a given size store has to be surrounded by N parking spaces, giving a required buffer zone around the store.

The store shown here to the right is in the same city, but follows that pattern of a large parking lot surrounding a store.  This store was very much unlike the market I showed earlier.  Instead it was similar to modern American style stores such as Walmart (but not as big, and with better quality stuff).

This store is also next to quite a bit of housing, but the primary method of getting to the store is either by an individually owned car or by taxi.  Having walked to this store a couple times, the trip across that parking lot is as bleak as is any large parking lot anywhere.

This is another store on the outskirts of town, outside the urban service boundary FWIW.  I did some shopping in the building on the left, and it too is surrounded by a large parking lot where the primary traffic is via car.  The store is in the same vein as Lowes.

BTW the sharp eyed will notice the name of the road is Strada Henry Ford, and that’s because across the street is a Ford factory.

These latter two stores are both located outside the urban service boundary.  I suspect they did this to avoid paying city taxes, as so often happens in the US.  Hence, these stores siphon shoppers away from stores that are integrated into neighborhoods, store owners who pay city taxes, yet pay nothing back to the city because they’re outside city limits.

The salon.com article mentioned earlier talked about how the traditional markets in, say, New York, had to abandon their central locations.  Why?  Because of noise and smell, but there was also the upsurge of modern grocery stores and the beguilement of America by the modern car and its supposed conveniences.

Those of you stuck in rush hour bumper-bumper traffic – just how convenient is the car?  When it takes you an hour to crawl 10 miles through hair-raising traffic, how do you feel?  I used to do that and it was nerve-wracking.

For most of human history the sort of market pictured at the beginning of this was normal.  Every town had markets like this, but in Modern America we abandoned such places in favor of sterile grocery stores.  What we in America got in the bargain is the chore of driving everywhere, the poisons spewing out our tailpipes, huge swaths of land wasted on parking lots, and a bleak suburban design pattern that’s dominated by the need to park the car while we’re inside the store.

Modern American’s are having fewer and fewer encounters with real food, from real food producers, and real farmers.  The modern food system has insulated us from real food, we collectively have little clue about what we’re missing, and are collectively being sold junk that claims to be food.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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