No Praise for Plant Foods at Chicago Farmer’s Market

farmer's marketBy Robert Grillo

When I first learned about the farmer’s market in my neighborhood, I saw it as a golden opportunity to promote Free from Harm and the benefits of a plant-based diet. The outdoor market was organized and commissioned by the local chamber of commerce and I quickly got in contact with them to express my interest in having a presence there. After a few days I learned that the organizer for the farmer’s market, one of the chamber members who was also the owner of a local health food store, wanted to “interview” me . I figured that the connection we would make would be grand: health food store + farmer’s market = a great opportunity to praise the benefits of a plant-based diet to a captive audience. But, no such luck. When I called to speak to the owner, I quickly sensed a very serious apprehension in her voice and in her questioning. She wanted to know whether I would be promoting a plant-based diet and if my materials were critical of meat and dairy consumption.

I explained to her that my materials are well-researched and using only the most respected source I could find, like the World Health Organization, The American Dietetic Association, and The American Diabetes Association. And yes, it is true that my materials question the assumptions we make about how healthy and humane our food is today, but I also emphasized the importance of letting each person make up their own minds about what they consider “humane,” healthy and credible.

She quickly concluded that my point of view would not fairly represent the wide spectrum of thought on the subject of nutrition, citing that organizations like the Justin T. Price Foundation should also be factored into the mix of what information people hear about. I decided not to get sidetracked by telling her that the Price Foundation funds its research from its members in the animal agriculture industry and so it is no surprise that their studies always conclude that animal products in abundance are healthy. I simply stated that I look for independent research that is not industry-funded to back up any health claims I make.

In the end of a long and interesting conversation, she basically concluded that the farmer’s market was not the right venue for what I am doing. She said “the neighborhood was just not ready for it.” It was as if she had made the decision for me, even though my background in marketing had me researching consumer trends and attitudes pretty often over the last several years. And, ironically, I was not only a part of the neighborhood she was referring to, I was also her customer! I respectfully disagreed, telling her anecdotes of how receptive people are about better food choices from so many different walks of life and economic levels. You don’t have to be white, educated or even “conscious” to understand something as tactical as the food we eat on a daily basis and how it impacts people, animals and the environment.

If you can’t talk about the benefits of a plant-centered diet at a farmer’s market that sells fruits and vegetables in a progressive urban neighborhood, then where can you?! After I got off the phone with her, this question really began to resonate with me. Maybe I didn’t make a good enough case in my interview for why it is so important to educate people about the health, environmental and animal welfare impacts of our food choices. Maybe she had visions of me showing ghastly images of animals in slaughterhouses, manure lagoons on factory farms that stretch for acres or heart stints of people who have had bypass surgery. I needed to understand the basis of her objection.

And then I realized that I had seen signs in the store for a “humane” meat CSA that people can sign up for to receive regular meat deliveries. When I explored this further on their website, I noted that the first three menu items in the navigation are: natural meat co-op loginnatural meat co-op sign-upnatural meat co-op menu. I recall her saying more than once how hard it is for an independent health food grocer to survive in this economy. On this point I cannot sympathize with her more and I commended her on what a valiant effort she has made. I know only too well about the obstacles and limitations a fledgling non profit educational organization faces today. But I’m not looking for her sympathy. If I read between the lines, I can only conclude that she was concerned that my influence could somehow threaten her meat program.

In any case I had failed to convince one member of the chamber who just so happened to be the organizer for the farmer’s market. When I followed up with the chamber people I had initiated contact with, they were very supportive of my efforts, but explained that there was no precedent for having an issue-based presence at the farmer’s market. I hope this is something they will consider for the future. A farmer’s market can be more than selling great produce. It could also be a grand opportunity to have a dialogue about food and sustainability. Everyone I meet seems to want to talk about it, even if we don’t always agree.

The irony is that I get very little out of participating in such community based-events relative to the amount of time and energy I put into them. I do it because I enjoy meeting with people face to face. It’s a more tactical way of gauging people’s attitudes about food and sustainability in an evolving urban environment. However in terms my goal of reaching as many people as possible and building the Free from Harm brand, my web site is the premiere communication tool. While I might reach 50-100 at a farmer’s market after a long and exhausting day, I can easily reach 400-500 people online with much less effort and doing what I like to do best: writing!

In the end, this story is not about whether Paula the grocer, the chamber of commerce or I were right or wrong. For me it is about a much broader set of values and concerns for our planet, for animals and for our own health. And as consumers we all have not only the right to know about where our food comes from but also the responsibility to eat consistent with their values.

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