They pass by the van to have Fernandez swipe their food stamp cards through a machine and hand them the yellow plastic coins used to buy everything from persimmons to what is far and away the market’s most popular item: the live chickens that squawk from cages at one end of the line of stalls.
Efreh Ghanen was one of the shoppers we talked to who felt that being able to use her food stamps at the farmers market had improved the health of her family. Ghanen, who shops with her mother and sister, likened Heart of the City to the Yemeni markets where they bought their food growing up. “The honey, fruit, and vegetables here are fresher,” she said. “They just taste better.”
“I definitely wouldn’t be able to shop here if it weren’t for the food stamp program,” echoed Shana Lancaster. She teaches at Paul Revere Elementary School in Bernal Heights, a position funded through AmeriCorps whose low pay automatically qualifies her for the food stamp program. She selects an armful of organic Gala apples while noting the value of shopping local for working people like herself. “I like supporting the farmers. Everyone here at the market has a story. These days, everyone is struggling.”
But both Lancaster and Ghanen tell us that when they can’t afford to shop at the farmers markets, they head straight for corporate retailers like Safeway and Walgreens, buying whatever they need to get by.
Programs like these are essential if the sustainability movement is to remain relevant and widen its reach. Just as the environment will degrade if industrial agriculture continues unabated, so too will local and organic food sources falter if the majority of our society cannot afford to buy their wares.
In the end, the obstacles are about class. Low-income groups, be they the people who grow the organic food or the schoolchildren who benefit from eating it, need to become more of a focus of the “good food” movement. What Slow Foodies and other activists must keep in mind is that over-accessorizing a cause (as with esoteric artisan products and exclusive dining experiences) makes it less a vehicle for change and more like reshuffling of the same old injustices. Social change, by definition, has to be for everyone. Because elitism tastes as bad as it always has.
For more information, check out “Fair Food: Field to Table,” a multimedia project recently released by the California Institute for Rural Studies. CIRS is one of the leading researchers of working standards on Californian farms and its data is found throughout this article. Watch the Fair Food documentary for free at www.fairfoodproject.org.