From field to plate, farmers markets influence multiple social factors that strengthen the community’s well-being.
Markets and Health Through Time
For centuries, markets have been at the heart of human culture and urban development, shaping our cities and communities. Food markets have held a special place, intimately connected with city planning and daily life in pre-industrial times.
In her interviews, Carolyne Steel, renowned author of “Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World” (2020) and “Hungry Cities: How Food Shapes Our Lives” (2008), vividly illustrates this co-evolution of food and cities:
“If you look at the map of any city built before the industrial age, you can trace down how it was physically shaped by food by reading the names of the streets.
Friday Street, for example, is where you went to buy your fish on a Friday. You have to imagine it full of food because streets and public spaces were the only places where food was bought and sold. It clearly would have been very difficult to live in a city like this and be unaware of where your food came from.”
However, with the advent of industrialization in the food sector, traditional markets began to decline in favor of supermarkets. This shift not only distanced consumers from producers but also eroded our understanding of food origins.
So, how do markets contribute to community health?
Health isn’t just the absence of disease but “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, as defined by the World Health Organization in 1948. Over time, our understanding of health has further expanded, recognizing the great impact of social factors on public health.
Social Determinants of Health (SDH) encompass factors that shape health outcomes, including economic stability, education, healthcare access, neighbourhood environment, and community context. Research indicates these factors influence health sometimes sometimes more than healthcare or lifestyle choices.
Markets support economic stability by allowing smaller, more frequent purchases and direct selling for producers, which can improve their financial wellness. Markets also create jobs with low entry barriers, vital for communities, especially in places without strong social safety nets. The smaller scale of markets also means a shorter supply chain, which has been shown to rebound faster and withstand shocks in economic volatility.
Education Access and Quality
Markets also help in the acquisition of “food literacy,”9 crucial knowledge to support proficiency in food-related skills and knowledge, enhancing education.
In this sense, markets are a place to acquire critical knowledge of food in an informal and empirical setting. From trying new foods to basic tips on how to cook them, farmers might also share their struggle with a certain harvest or climate change.
These exchanges make food education accessible to community members who might not otherwise access this information.
Healthcare Access and Quality
Embracing Hippocrates’ wisdom that “food is medicine,” markets thrive by offering high-quality food. In lengthy supply chains, fruits and veggies are picked prematurely for easier transport, sacrificing flavor and nutrients. In contrast, farmers select produce at its peak, often just before market day, ensuring freshness and maximum nutrition.
Markets also promote seasonal eating, benefiting both health and the environment. These nutrient-rich foods, alongside the absence of ultra-processed options, encourage a plant-focused diet, scientifically proven to reduce inflammation and chronic diseases.
Moreover, markets benefit the health of farmers and producers. Smaller-scale farming allows manual harvesting, reducing risks like pesticide use and heavy machinery. Local markets grant more control over product choices and pesticide usage compared to large-scale farms, where cost-effective pesticides can pose health risks to both humans and the environment.
Neighborhood and Built Environment
Markets run on a small scale. This means they can be located within neighborhoods, allowing easier access to community members, often by foot. This is highly beneficial in urban areas considered food deserts. Markets being located closer to the consumer allows for more frequent shopping trips, which has been shown to decrease food waste as individuals are more inclined to buy exactly what they need for that day and use the produce immediately, minimizing spoilage.
Social and Community Context
Markets have historically been a pillar to communities for centuries, promoting social interaction, both with other consumers and farmers/vendors selling goods at the market, increasing social capital and the health of the individual and the community.19
This also increases both the emotional and cultural value of the food within the community.
What’s more, more women than men source their livelihoods from work in agri-food systems, and markets allow space for caretakers to bring children to the market with them. As women are still marginalized in many countries around the world, the ability to work whilst being a caretaker supports their professional development and social opportunities.20
By examining these social determinants of health influenced by markets, we gain a comprehensive understanding of their importance to the communities they serve.
Making healthy food accessible to all: Slow Food Earth Markets
In 2004, Slow Food began to support farmers’ markets around the world that were committed to making good, clean and fair produce available and accessible in their area while offering profitable opportunities for producers. Slow Food’s Earth Markets arose exactly from the intuition of the crucial role they could play in guaranteeing a healthier future by educating both consumers and producers about sustainable choices and agroecological practices.
Your involvement can make a world of difference, not only in your own health but in the vitality of your community and the preservation of traditional food knowledge.
Find the Earth Market near you: while supporting your community’s health, you’ll discover the unique taste of your local biodiversity!