Farmers’ markets practically glow with wholesome virtue: Shop here, they promise, and you can help build a sustainable, healthy food system!
But without the data to buttress those claims, it’s hard to know whether farmers’ markets are actually meeting those goals or how they can adapt to better meet their communities’ needs. Alfonso Morales, a professor of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wants to help change that.
Fueled by an increasing interest in local food, the number of farmers’ markets in the United States has more than doubled in the last decade. This rise in popularity has been accompanied by the implicit assumption that farmers’ markets are more sustainable than their fluorescent-lit, big-box counterparts. Their environmental advantages, advocates say, are clear. Food is transported shorter distances, which results in lower fossil fuel consumption. Farmers’ markets offer more diverse crops grown by more eco-friendly methods. Broaden the definition of sustainability to include social, health, and economic factors, and you’ll encounter claims that farmers’ markets promote healthy eating and a pedestrian culture, bring fresh produce to underserved neighborhoods, foster entrepreneurship and a diversified agricultural economy, and create a social space that builds a sense of community.
Farmers’ markets might very well be doing all these things, Morales says, but we don’t know, and he admits that right now there isn’t even a consensus on how to evaluate these “sustainable” activities. “But even so, we have to make a way forward. And the way we make a way forward is though measurement.”
Those measurements are relatively easy for major supermarket chains, which have the staff and the budgets for exhaustive market research. Analyzing research data enables big retailers to respond to changing demographics and consumer preferences, ensuring that they stay relevant to the communities they serve. Farmers’ markets typically don’t have those resources. That’s where Morales’ project comes in.