Food in Bloom

June 6, 2010

I spent yesterday afternoon at the Bloomington, IN farmer’s market. It’s considered to be one of the big success stories. The permanent facility consists of three or four covered awnings, each about thirty yards long and able to accommodate 10 or 12 vendors with plenty of room to spare. The awnings themselves were providing shade yesterday, when the temperature in Bloomington was nearing 90°, and they would at least keep the vendors and those inspecting their wares dry in case of rain. They have a wrought iron look that fits in well with the “Main Street” feel of downtown Bloomington. Yesterday, there were also a lot of additional vendors set up in an adjacent paved area that may double as a parking lot. I would guess that there were at least an additional 25 vendors occupying this area. There was a very wide array of products, ranging from lots of fresh strawberries (it’s mid-June in Indiana, after all) and heirloom tomatoes (impressive to see these so early) to pasture-raised pork and Kobe beef.  The wild mushroom vendors are a special treat. All this makes the Bloomington market competitive with some of the best one-day markets I’ve seen. It certainly rivals the Saturday market that operates off of Dupont Plaza in Washington, D.C.

On the one hand, this is to be expected. Bloomington has long been known as a haven for people with progressive tastes in food. Over three days there I also had a stop at Thai, Indian and Tibetan restaurants, the last of which is reputedly operated by a cousin of the Dalai Lama. There are multiple possibilities for all these ethnic cuisines in Bloomington, and one can continue the tour with Malaysian, Korean, Japanese and the usual European possibilities if one has more time in town than I had. It’s not surprising that a community supporting such a rich variety of unusual ethnic tastes in its restaurants would also support a robust and bustling farmer’s market, especially on a sunny day in late spring when people are really getting cranked up to enjoy the fine weather.

On the other hand, Bloomington has less than 70,000 people (albeit with an average income of $50,000). There is no “metro Bloomington”. Metro Lansing has over half a million, though the city itself is more like 113,000 (with an average income of $38,000). With the greater metro area included we get closer to Bloomington’s $50,000 average household income figure. It’s thus worth thinking about why we do not approximate something closer to what they have in Bloomington for food choices. I want to propose two hypotheses.

First, there is culture and tradition. Mid-Michigan may just be one of those meat and potatoes areas where you get ridiculed if you know what a latte is. People are proud of their pedestrian food tastes. Yet while this hypothesis accounts for our lack of Tibetan restaurants, it doesn’t really account for the paucity of fresh produce and pasture raised pork. The foods being hawked at the Bloomington farmer’s market fit well into a mainstream Midwestern food culture. It’s not at all clear to me why we would prefer to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon picking over California-grown produce in the stale air-conditioning at Meijer or Kroger’s.

Second, we have a splintered local food community. Every neighborhood wants its own farmer’s market, and the City Market is an every day affair. This puts the limited number of farmers interested in selling at markets racing around for at least four markets a week chasing down a much smaller number of potential customers than were strolling the grounds yesterday afternoon in Bloomington. There is a rationale for multiple locations, as the Lansing area is certainly big enough to make traipsing out to the Okemos market (arguably our most robust) difficult for anyone in the city limits, and especially so for those on the short end of our $38,000 average income figure. Nevertheless, all of our markets (and here I include Okemos and the City Market) are pretty much ragtag affairs in comparison with what I experienced in a much, much smaller city yesterday afternoon. I can’t escape the judgment that there has been a failure of leadership in our food community somewhere.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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