Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham
The traditional fresh food market; how modest it seems, spreading into high streets and town squares, drawing in consumers with its array of colours and smells. This familiar scene, however, is at the centre of ongoing debates about fresh food provisioning in England, highlighting a complex relationship between economics and culture.
In the wake of last month’s BBC Food and Farming awards, Smith et al’s (2014) Area paper on fresh food provisioning and markets gives an insight into the socio-spatial dynamics of fresh food markets in England. The paper investigates the connective spaces that link markets and consumers, and the ways in which fresh food moves through the marketplace. Food provisioning by traditional food markets, it argues, is affected by political, economic, cultural, and material concerns.
In England, traditional food markets were long considered places where low-income shoppers could buy affordable fresh food. How things have changed! Some markets have been, what Smith et al (2014:122) call, “(re)gentrified”, becoming places where more wealthy shoppers can buy high-quality, fashionable food. Food markets are therefore placed in a precarious position between the traditional and the modern. Furthermore, due to the external influence of powerful multi-national supermarket chains, some fresh food markets are under threat, whilst others are being forced to adapt to changing demands.
Some people do, of course, resist the increasingly dominant supermarket. Last month’s BBC Food and Farming awards marked its 15th culinary celebration and provided, perhaps, a bit more optimism about the state of fresh food provisioning in this country. Amongst the awards were ‘best food market’ (for the best regular market that brings together the local community and provides “fresh, quality, affordable food”), ‘best food producer’ and ‘best drinks producer’ (for producers using quality ingredients to create a quality, fairly-priced products). There was a clear emphasis on quality, sustainability, and affordability of local products.
Smith et al stress that traditional markets illustrate how place and culture are entwined with food sourcing. Demand for food depends on locals’ tastes for organic, local, seasonal, or ‘exotic’ produce. Thus, the type of food provided by food markets varies according to the changing socio-demographics of the market’s consumers; markets must adapt to changing shopping habits. Smith et al argue that food markets as socio-economic spaces all behave differently, adapting to change based on their geography and history. Every town or city reacts differently to effects of retail restructuring, market systems, and consumption practices. Equally, for some places, local food markets are vital to maintaining their distinct identity and local pride. Thus, the popular idiom ‘you are what you eat’ could be extended to link food consumption with local identity. Fresh food, therefore, takes on a very cultural form; cultural meaning and economic value become complexly linked.
The importance of the cultural meaning imbued in food was evident amongst the winners at the BBC Food and Farming awards. Doncaster market was crowned ‘best food market’. It is the largest market in the North with over 400 stalls providing quality, good-value local and imported goods. Likewise, the winners of ‘best food producer’ and ‘best drinks producer’ were commended for their skill in hand-making locally-sourced products. Here the importance of hand-made produce further shows the conscious decision of some to boycott mass-produced supermarket goods. A particularly interesting award from a geographical point of view was the ‘best food initiative’; an award for the initiative that is making a positive difference to our relationships with food. Stressing the importance of producer-consumer relationships, the ‘best food initiative’ went to a scheme that brings together producers and consumers at a pop-up market, where consumers collect pre-ordered local produce from their neighbouring producers. This fits perfectly with Smith et al’s argument that fresh food moves through connective spaces – such as food markets – between producers and consumers.
It is clear that the fresh food market is an important feature of the economic, social, and cultural landscape of many English towns. It is also a vital actor in both local and national concerns about food consumption, identity, health, politics, and economics. With so much hidden complexity in such humble spaces, it is certainly some interesting food for thought.
Smith, J., Maye, D., and Ilbery , B. (2014). “The traditional food market and place: new insights into fresh food provisioning in England”, Area, 46(2):122-128.