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Access to ‘ethical’ food often available only to the wealthy, study says

The study found that barriers that keep lower-income people from shopping at places like farmer’s markets range from social stigma – the idea that customers with lower incomes may not feel they belong in “exclusive” places – to practical ones, such as geography.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The benefits of buying "ethical" food at farmer's markets and organic grocers often comes at the expense of equal access, according to a new report.

The study, by University of Guelph researcher Kelly Hodgins and professor Evan Fraser, highlights a paradox within the "ethical eating" movement. While eating local or organic food is often touted as superior from a health, environmental and oftentimes ethical perspective, such foods are often available only in Canada to the wealthy, with limited access for those living on lower or even middle incomes.

The report finds a number of barriers that exist to prevent lower-income individuals from accessing these foods – reasons that often expand beyond higher prices.

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"These spaces are classed and sort of yuppie, but they don't have to be as much as they are," Ms. Hodgins said in an interview. "Even if we were to eliminate that cost barrier, there's still a lot of social issues to overcome."

Read more: Organic food 'not automatically better,' study finds

Such barriers range from social stigma – the idea that customers with lower incomes may not feel they belong in "exclusive" places – to practical ones, such as geography. In many cases, the report states, farmer's markets are located in areas that require a car to get to, or revolve around a regular Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 schedule.

The report also explores how portion size and packaging at farmer's markets are not designed for say, a senior citizen cooking for one or someone living in shared accommodations without regular access to a refrigerator or even a stove.

It also discusses the lack of diverse, or culturally appropriate items available in these markets and stores. This, Ms. Hodgins said, perpetuates the idea that such places are designed for a "white and upper-middle-class" clientele.

"I'm not advocating to say all low-income consumers should want to be able to shop at a farmer's market and buy $5 bunches of kale," Ms. Hodgins said. Rather, the purpose of the research is to "highlight the stratification" in our food system, and to question whether such a hierarchy is necessary.

Ms. Hodgins grew up on a B.C. dairy farm and became interested in this research after observing the clientele at a farmer's market where she sold her products. After the provincial government began offering coupons to lower-income individuals to spend at farmer's market, she began to see how homogeneous the clientele had been previously.

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"[These places are] sort of being rarefied or romanticized as the cure-all," she said of farmer's markets and specialty shops. "But when we look a little deeper, we recognize that social justice is lacking."

In compiling the report, Ms. Hodgins spent several months in British Columbia speaking with dozens of individuals working at farmer's markets; independent specialty grocers; and others who run food businesses or non-profits specializing in organic, local or sustainable products.

From her conversations, she found many business owners showed little concern about widening their customer demographic.

"We are a business. Not a social-service agency," one owner interviewed said. Others blamed a lack of education or food literacy among lower-income individuals – something Ms. Hodgins described as "myth."

But she said businesses alone are not at blame. Wider policy issues are at play, she said. Higher social-assistance rates could allow more people to have better access to healthy, nutritious food. And providing greater supports to small farmers who grow products using environmentally sustainable methods could also help lower prices.

Diana Bronson, executive director at Food Secure Canada, echoed this. "The problem is the income of people, and their ability to buy healthy food," she said. "What is often is affordable is often not healthy."

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The report, she said, "speaks to the needs for policy change and address some of the systemic and society-wide problems we have." Ms. Bronson said there has always been a tension between supporting small-scale farmers who want to produce the highest-quality and most sustainable products, and meeting the needs of those who may not be able to afford them.

"The challenge," she said, "is to do both of those things at the same time."

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About the Author
National Food Reporter

Ann Hui is the national food reporter at The Globe and Mail. Previously, she worked as a national reporter and homepage editor for theglobeandmail.com and an online editor in News. More

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