Farmers Markets as Community Builders
Survey research shows how local food markets promote communication that builds civic engagement.
It’s a Saturday morning at the farmers market. You check in with the grower at your favorite tomato stand, stop to enjoy the folk music streaming from the plaza, and then chat with the flower vendor about joining next week’s blood drive. It may feel like a regular visit to the market — a little socializing, a little entertainment, a little food — but you might not realize you’re participating in something more.
“Farmers markets are more than just local outdoor grocery stores — they’re also places where you can register to vote, learn about community organizations, interact with neighbors and local farmers,” says Bret Shaw, an associate professor of life sciences communication and environmental communication specialist for the Division of Extension. “They are places where people can get in touch with their local food systems and build connections within their communities.”
These are just some of the features of farmers markets that allow them to serve as centers of communication and enhance a community’s levels of civic engagement, according to new research by Shaw and Laura Witzling PhD’18. Using two Wisconsin-based surveys — one targeting farmers market leaders and the other distributed to Wisconsin residents — the study expands on previous work about the community benefits of farmers markets.
By buying locally grown food and interacting with vendors at farmers markets, community members participate in “civic agriculture,” which supports a community’s economic and social development. Other forms of civic agriculture include community-supported farms, urban community farms, and farm-to- school programs. Witzling and Shaw’s survey results reveal that farmers markets bridge the gap between civic agriculture and civic engagement by acting as communication infrastructures.
Communication infrastructures are networks of communicators — community members, organizations, and local media. A strong communication infrastructure can facilitate civic engagement because it helps community members connect and address local issues.
Witzling and Shaw’s work shows that farmers markets possess the ability to act as communication infrastructures, and, in turn, promote civic engagement. In their study, more than half of the Wisconsin farmers markets noted existing partnerships with local media, with high percentages also working directly with many types of organizations. These relationships allow farmers markets to amplify community stories and connect residents to other community stakeholders, such as schools, local government, chambers of commerce, and nonprofits.
Additionally, farmers markets act as communication infrastructures by supporting social interaction through amenities, such as music and seating. They also work to make themselves accessible financially: Many farmers markets accept electronic benefits transfer cards, which allow Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants to put federal benefits toward the purchase of healthy foods.
So, taken together, what do these findings mean?
“Civic engagement typically means being active in your community by voting, volunteering, or participating in community meetings,” says Witzling, who is currently working as a consultant for the national Farmers Market Coalition. “But participating at farmers markets is another great way to make your community stronger.”
Now that their work has shown the value of farmers markets in Wisconsin, Witzling and Shaw hope to spread the word about how these markets foster communication and civic engagement in other places.
“Farmers markets are valuable community assets as they can bring together people that come from different backgrounds for various issues of shared importance,” Shaw says. “So we hope to expand on our successes in Wisconsin and do the same thing at a more national level.”
This study was published in March 2022 in the International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy. It builds on previous studies authored by Shaw and Witzling in 2019 in the Journal of Extension (with coauthors Alfonso Morales, chair and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor in the Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture, and UW alum Marlie Wilson) and Agriculture and Human Values (with coauthor David Trechter, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls). The farmers market manager survey was supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Hatch Program.
This article was posted in Economic and Community Development, Food Systems, Health and Wellness, Natural Selections, Spring 2023 and tagged Bret Shaw, civic agriculture, civic engagement, communication infrastructure, farmers markets, Life Sciences Communication, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, UW Division of Extension.