Kelly Hodgins was selling garden produce at a B.C. farmers’ market in 2013 when she began noticing something was different about her customers.
There were new faces arriving at the market. The province had introduced a new program making coupons available to lower-income families to shop B.C.’s well-established farmers’ markets.
“It was kind of an ‘aha moment’ for me. All of a sudden we were seeing a new demographic attending the market,” said Hodgins.
In her own quest to sell fresh local food it had never occurred to her until then that this was a place some saw as exclusive.
It prompted her to start looking more closely at what dynamics were at play making the alternative food market network accessible to some but not all.
Now program co-ordinator for the Feeding 9 Billion Project at the University of Guelph, Hodgins together with U of G professor, Evan Fraser have recently released a study titled We Are A Business, Not A Social Service Agency: Barriers to Widening Access for Low-Income Consumers in Alternative Food Market Spaces.
Hodgins, who wrote the thesis while earning her master’s degree in geography, describes a ‘three-tiered’ food system evolving over the past two decades in Canada.
It’s one that’s come to also cater to those she dubs ‘have lots,’ or those whose incomes give them access to not only the most nutritious and fresh food possible, but because of their relatively well-to-do status can also make choices about how their food is produced.
It tends to be those with higher incomes who shop the alternative food networks of farmers’ markets, health food stores, community shared agricultural (CSA) arrangements or food clubs, she said.
“A lot of people able to access the alternative food system are primarily in an upper-income demographic,” she said. “They’re relatively privileged socio-economically.”
That’s in stark contrast to those who are ‘have nots,’ struggling to make ends meet and unable to afford to buy food in ordinary grocery stores. The ‘have nots’ regularly turn to food banks or other forms of charity or emergency food aid.
The ‘haves’ are basically everyone else, buying conventionally produced food through regular retail grocery stores.
Hodgins spent several months interviewing those who worked in B.C. farmers’ markets as well as independent specialty grocers and others operating food businesses or non-profits specializing in organic, local or sustainable products, asking questions about access and potential barriers to shopping at these sites.
Part of the problem is those operating in the alternative food system don’t actually see a problem, she said.
Her study’s title was derived from a remark made from one of her respondents. Nearly 80 per cent of those she interviewed told her running a viable farm or profitable business was their primary concern, not who could or couldn’t afford to buy from them.
“Which is totally fair,” she adds. “I wasn’t thinking about that either when I was a vendor at a farmers’ market.”
Her research also looked at these kinds of producers’ livelihood needs, and it showed those who supply the alternative food markets are themselves not necessarily in a high-income bracket either.
It all points to a problem for which there are no easy answers or solutions but one that calls for balancing everyone’s needs, and for that new food policy approaches are needed, she said.
Hodgins hopes her research sheds light on what’s wrong with both Canada’s food and social welfare systems.
“I think that a lot of the problems and barriers that I raise in this research are symptoms of a larger issue in Canada which is food insecurity,” she said.
This year’s consultations toward developing a national food policy offer a way forward to figuring out a better way than this current system of stratified access to food.
There are now both calls to improve Canada’s tattered social safety net as well as for legitimate supports for farmers who serve alternative food markets, such as paying them to produce ecological services, said Hodgins.
“If we want to create a more accessible food system where everyone has access to healthy, nutritious food it gets back to policy change,” she said.
“We have an opportunity right now to envision and co-create a system that upholds farmers’ livelihoods and consumer food security.”