Farmers Markets and the Exposition

The modern farmers market serves many different functions. For some, it is a way to get a good deal on fresh food that isn’t normally available to them. For others, it’s a shopping experience where they are faced with exotic varieties of fruit and vegetables they can’t find at their chain grocery stores and that come from places that aren’t geographically far away but are from a places that are culturally very different. Sometimes they seek out food that is strange or of an heirloom variety. For people after this exotic cultural experience, they get to claim part of a heritage and lifestyle that might not readily fit in with urban or suburban life. People have become motivated to gain a connection to where their food comes from. They try to fulfill a moral or social obligation to shop at the farmers market. They are offered an opportunity to purchase a souvenir to bring home and put on their counter for a few days in order to be able to tell their friends, “I got those at the Farmers Market.”

The Old Oakland Farmers Market is located between Downtown Oakland and Jack London Square and borders Oakland’s Chinatown. The Old Oakland District has been revitalized over the past few years and is the home of some very chic pop-up shops, fine dining establishments, and many different law firms. Old Oakland also supports a very vibrant nightlife and on weekends, many well-dressed people fill the bars and clubs. This up and coming district also hosts its very own farmers market that happens every Friday morning from 8am to 2pm.

The Old Oakland Farmers Market does not primarily cater to this hip downtown Oakland district, but mainly to the neighboring Chinese residents. The vendors spread out a block in each direction from the intersection of Washington and 9th Street. There are typically a lot of fruit and produce vendors, a few vendors that sell eggs, fish, flowers, or small plants, and some prepared foods. Most of the vegetables available are Chinese vegetables from farms in California’s Central Valley. A shopper can still get strawberries and cucumbers, but there might be only one or two vendors selling them. One vendor sells a flat of 30 chicken eggs for five dollars, and another vendor around the corner sells salted duck eggs, goose eggs, chicken eggs, and duck and chicken varieties of balut. At another end of the market, there is a woman who sells live catfish. She’ll even clobber them with a bat so they don’t flop around in your bag for the rest of the morning. The prepared food section caters to area professionals who come to the market during their lunch break. They sell kettle-corn, rotisserie chicken, tacos, empanadas, hot dogs and baked goods. This area is usually not as crowded as the rest of the market during the morning but gets busier during the lunch rush.

The Saturday farmers market at Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland is an entirely different kind of market. It’s held at a small park in the shadow of the freeway across the street from the Grand Lake Theatre. It is in very close proximity to both a Trader Joe’s and a Safeway. There are also numerous chain stores in the immediate area such as the Gap, Peet’s coffee, CVS as well as many other smaller boutique clothing stores.

The Grand Lake market is laid out in three rows that span the park and there are small walkways between the rows and a sidewalk that surrounds the entire market. Many produce vendors sell relatively standard varieties of lettuces, and vegetables generally used for making salads (radishes, asparagus, carrots, squashes, etc.) This market also has an egg vendor, except these eggs cost $7.50 a dozen. Another produce vendor has a very rustic looking rack that displays an assortment of pickles, jellies and preserves that range in price from $8–10 per jar.

The prepared foods that are available at Grand Lake are a diverse mix of ethnic styles that do not seem like they are prepared in a traditional method. There is a dim sum table selling a lunch for $12, a crepe vendor that specializes in buckwheat savory crepes that range from $8–12, and other vendors offering gourmet versions of ethnic food.

The non-food vendors sell a variety of goods ranging from lotions and makeup to scarves and purses. The market manager mandates that the non-food goods that are sold at the market are handmade by the vendor and that they are locally produced. Goods that are imported or not made by the seller are prohibited. The non-food area of the market at Grand Lake consists of about 10 different vendors and is much bigger than the non-food area of the Old Oakland Market.

One of the most immediate differences between the vendors at the two markets is the way that the food is displayed. At the Old Oakland market, many vegetables are piled on top of each other on plywood that rests on top of folding tables so shoppers can sort through the greens and pick out what they want to buy. At the Grand Lake market, vendors take a lot of care in displaying their goods and many can be seen in a constant struggle to keep their vegetables looking orderly and nicely arranged. Some vendors put produce in different baskets or wooden crates to keep like vegetables together and to keep them looking “farm fresh”.

The Grand Lake market vendors use their displays to add additional value and meaning to their goods. Local, organic food has become associated with sustainability and is therefore more valuable. Since the organic food has become trendy, marketers and producers have latched on to this trend and used it as a way to grab the buyer’s attention. Aside from the health benefits of eating food that is not treated with pesticides and other chemicals, organic food has been elevated into a luxury item. The way these goods are being sold at the Grand Lake market allow for leisure shoppers to marvel in the bright colors and varietal vegetables that are not commonly seen at the grocery store. This tactic is similar to the way that goods were displayed in the early 20th century department store windows. Products were used to convey a sense of luxury and as a departure from the usual. Consumer goods must be differentiated from their competitors and by using displays and artistic signage, merchandisers are better able to convince shoppers to make a purchase based on the look of the item (Leach 61–66).

Shoppers at the Old Oakland market shop with a purpose. As people move down the streets to different vendors, shoppers move quickly and crowd around tables in a scramble to pick up an item. This may be caused by the market occurring on a weekday morning and people have to get to work, but nonetheless, the shopping that happens here is focused.

At Grand Lake, shopping happens in a more lackadaisical fashion. There are many more flâneurs navigating the crowds. These flâneurs, as Falk puts it, “join the ‘audience’” and saunter through the market switching back and forth from voyeur to exhibitionist, simultaneously watching and being watched (Falk 180–181). Shopping at the Grand Lake seems to function more like recreational shopping than purposeful shopping.

While a shopper can get some kitchen staples at Grand Lake market, the costs of some of the items can be prohibitively expensive for most people. The prepared foods area at Grand Lake seems to be a curated exhibit of foodie versions of ethnic dishes. They are not authentic reproductions but “improved” versions of the originals. This held true for many of the goods available at the Grand Lake Market. The eggs available are not the just standard white or brown eggs, but a creamy bluish-green color. Asparagus is offered not only in the standard green, but also in the rare white and the even rarer purple varieties. While there is a movement in the food industry towards heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables that were available before the industrial food machine took hold, an ulterior motive may be to further consumerism by providing an alternative version of the same product.

Shopping at the Old Oakland Farmers Market is different. When the market opens in the morning, shoppers rush to get the best of the day’s offerings. While this market is much less of a scene, shoppers still walk and talk with friends. The sense of sociability is still apparent, but there is much less promenading in Old Oakland. What shoppers here are really after is fresh food. When I asked a few shoppers why they bought vegetables at the farmers market rather than in Chinatown, all of their responses were related to the quality and the freshness of the produce.

There are similarities between the shoppers in the way they navigate through both markets and shop for food. Falk’s analysis of the visual registers of the shopping experience give insight on why these environments are so stimulating. The farmers market environment is a unique shopping experience because it occurs in a temporary space that was not designed to be used this way. Shopping in open-air street markets like these allow the shopper to move through the markets and scan the vendor’s stands with their eyes. The eye contact between shoppers does not linger and follows the “code of transient eye contact.” This is typical of a busy urban scene. Simultaneously, the environment allows for people to gaze at the food, visually consuming it before actually consuming it. Shoppers are constantly moving through crowds scanning the food and other people because:

…where else in the city does one find places in which self-reflection through things and images is made possible as an individually autonomous movement through space, including the freedom to create one’s own routes with all the small pauses, halts, looks and touches one chooses? (Falk 183)

Urban life is exciting because of this kind of stimulation. People at these markets are consuming both the food and this experience of freely moving through crowds and rubbing elbows with others. The thrill of the hunt plays out at the market (Falk; Lovell).

Not only does displaying food this way transform it into an object of desire, it also removes it from the dirty processes in which it’s produced. The Old Oakland market is able to communicate that fish come from the ocean, were at one point living (or are still alive) and have to be killed, cleaned and cooked before they are eaten. Grand Lake market is less able to communicate that. All the meat products sold there are packaged into shrink wrap and frozen. This process is very similar to the conventional ways that meat is typically sold. By hiding the social and environmental process that food is made, they are attempting to hide and sterilize where the food comes from (Lovell).

When looking at the collections of goods available at each of the markets, we can see the role that the Diderot Unity plays in shaping the environment of the markets as well as the roll the markets play in the lives of the consumers who patronize them. A Diderot Unity is a collection of consumer goods that become the way in which the consumer shapes their identity. McCracken’s analysis of the Diderot Unities can be used as a framework to look at the markets. The patrons at the Grand Lake market give clues about their personal collection of goods including yoga mats and clothing, fancy bicycles, expensive strollers etc. By taking an inventory of the collection of goods for sale and for personal display, we can see the ways in which the personal identity of “sustainability” is being fulfilled by shopping at the Grand Lake Farmers Market. The goods available at the Old Oakland market like, balut, Asian greens, dates, fish, etc. are desirable to their consumers because of their freshness. I asked one shopper if he could get the same goods in Chinatown. He responded, “Yes, but these are better. They’re fresher.” The unity at play in the Old Oakland market represents a cultural connectedness rather than a social morality (McCracken). The strawberry stands sold organic local strawberries but there were more people buying live black cod than buying strawberries.

The Grand Lake Farmers Market, plainly put, is for rich white people. It is not uncommon for alternative agrifood businesses to focus on affluent whites. In fact, the majority of California organic farmers are white. The majority of the vendors and the majority of the shoppers were white at this market. Scholars who are critical of the alternative food business use a hierarchical framework to describe this market scenario:

[W]hen white bodies cluster around property and privilege, as happens in farmers markets, they can code these spaces as white, creating what Kobayashi and Peake (2000) term a “racialized space”. This runs contrary to the popular belief among farmers market managers that markets are culturally neutral. (Alkon and McCullen 940)

These kind of farmers markets have become racialized and class differentiated. They capitalize on the fetishization of commodities and people who cannot afford these commodities are marginalized and considered ignorant because of their poor food choices (Alkon and McCullen; Kobayashi and Peake).

The expensive goods that are available at the Grand Lake farmers market can also be looked at as form of social control. Bennett used Foucault’s ideas of the carceral system and Panopticon as a way to understand the power structure of the exhibitionary complex at the Great Exposition in London in 1851. We can see the role that the farmers market plays as providing the grounds for the spectacle and the displays of knowledge and power. By elevating the quality of the goods at this market as compared to all other goods, the message sent is that good people eat expensive food and bad people eat cheap food. The power that the vendor wields in displaying organic food as a way for people to educate themselves on how to live and eat causes market shoppers to regulate their behavior. The farmers market as an exhibitionary complex plays a role in indoctrinating the shoppers in the ways of self-regulation by learning what the qualities of good food are and what to avoid. The power of this market is not through some form of discipline, but in defining how the ‘others’ eat and live and creating a social strata where others are represented (Bennett).

The theme of this Grand Lake kind of farmers market is wealth and status. It is reminiscent of Haussmann’s Boulevards where public space was co-opted by the upper class for promenading and window shopping. The rich put on their nicest or most outlandish clothes, strap their children into thousand dollar strollers, fill up their shopping bags with overpriced groceries, and talk badly about people who are too poor to be able to afford a healthy, eco-friendly lifestyle. It seems easy to forget that the three E’s of sustainability are environment, economics, and equity. As evidenced in the Old Oakland market, this kind of status shopping is not universal and seems to be more of a phenomenon of white markets. Trying to get the freshest, best quality food available is a trait found in both sets of shoppers and not just a symptom of being rich.

Fundamentally, the wealthy shoppers feel like they are doing something good for the environment and the food system by shopping locally. They are supporting small farms and trying to gain a clearer vision of where their food comes from. Even if they are getting a sterilized version of it, they are at least trying to do the right thing and the experience of their market may serve as their reward. But this is at the expense of everyone else who cannot afford to shop this way and the sterilized version removes race and class from the food production cycle. Not everyone can make food decisions based on ideals. Many have to make these decisions based on need and it’s not fair to pass moral judgment on those decisions.

I don’t think trying to find an enchanting food shopping experience wholly wrong. Anyone can get excited about buying fresh food and open air farmers market can provide a good venue to do that. When people have a venue to connect with their community and neighbors around food it can bring them together. However, when class divides are reinforced at the market, and winners and losers are delineated by whether or not they can access food, the third E in the sustainability equation is missing.


Originally published at www.ryanlhunt.com.

Works Cited

Alkon, Allison Hop, and Christie Grace McCullen. “Whiteness and Farmers Markets: Performances, Perpetuations…Contestations?” Antipode 43.4 (2011): 937–959.

Falk, Pasi. “The Scopic Regimes of Shopping.” The Shopping Experience. 1st ed. Ed. Pasi Falk & Colin Campbell. London: Sage Publications, 1997. Print.

Kobayashi, A, and L Peake. “Racism Out of Place: Thoughts on Whiteness and an Anti-racist Geography in the New Millennium.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90 (2000): 392–403. Print.

Leach, William. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. New York: Vintage Books. Print.

Lovell, MM. “Food Photography & Inverted Narratives of Desire.” Exposure 34.Fall (2001): 21–26. Print.

McCracken, Grant. “Diderot Unity and the Diderot Effect.” Culture and Consumption. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990. 192. Print.