Differences in goods for sale and their prices, atmosphere, and social interactions between customers and employees vary greatly between locations where food is for sale. Supermarkets, smaller grocers, and farmers’ markets display differing socioeconomic factors as well as different ways in which shop owners attract customers.
In her article “Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice,” Julie Guthman discusses how farmer’s markets (a type of alternative food practice) “cater to relatively well-off customers […] because many of the spaces of alternative food practice have been designed and located to secure market opportunities and decent prices for farmers” (134). Unsurprisingly, nearly every aspect of the Bath Township Farmer’s Market seemed designed to benefit both its fairly wealthy patrons and its vendors. The market consisted of nine tents housing goods and one tent with live musicians: a guitarist, a violinist, and a singer. The goods in each tent were very neatly organized, aesthetically pleasing, and reflected a demand for fresh and locally sourced foods as well as organic produce and uncommon items. One farmer harvested the produce sold in his tent on the day of the market. Another tent displayed traditional Czechoslovakian pastries, while another sold fresh-baked loaves of bread. While the produce throughout the market was relatively inexpensive, other products for sale were not: a pint of maple syrup was almost twelve dollars and a honeycomb was about fourteen, supporting the assumption that this farmers’ market, like most others, are directed toward wealthier patrons. Most customers were dressed casually in jackets, jeans, sweaters, and boots, but all were neatly groomed; none could be considered “vagrants,” and it can be reasonably assumed that these customers were middle- to upper middle-class. The market’s clientele was not particularly diverse: although they ranged from college-aged to elderly, most shoppers were white adults, suggesting that the more affluent in the Lansing area are generally white adults. Customers took their time browsing goods for sale, and friendly vendors eagerly engaged shoppers in conversations about their wares and offered samples of their products. Visitors to the market engaged in pleasantries and discussed the weather and the goods around them, suggesting that they felt comfortable enough around each other to interact. This makes me think these people are from the same class-level, for people in the same class would probably be more comfortable interacting with each other than with people outside of it. These customers tended to congregate in tents that had a wider variety of goods for sale and those that were more organized, and as a result, the owners of these tents received the most business. People tend to be drawn to order and places that look aesthetically pleasing, so it is not surprising that the tents that were both ordered and aesthetically pleasing gained the most business.
Meijer, a major big-box store occupying an enormous building, contrasted sharply against the farmer’s market in every way. Nearly inaudible music that piped throughout the store stood in for live musicians, and a plethora of bright yellow sale tags bombarding customers at the end of every aisle replaced open-air tents filled with tastefully arranged goods. The store’s wares included nearly everything a person could ever want or need: the food section alone included everything from produce to baked goods to alcohol to frozen food to desserts. Despite this variety, everything in the store was neatly organized and could be easily navigated by the customer. The prices of most items were lower than similar ones found at the farmer’s market, making them available and affordable to college students and less affluent shoppers. The food items flagged as being on sale seemed to reflect what such shoppers might buy: ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese, energy drinks, snack foods, bread, soda, frozen pizza and chicken, and alcohol. These foods are ready to be eaten, involve very little, if any, preparation, and release feelings of pleasure (dubbed the “bliss point” in Michael Moss’s article “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food”) when consumed. The low prices of these items relate directly to government subsidies of ingredients such as corn and soy. The documentary A Place at the Table discusses how processed foods have decreased in price by forty percent while non-processed foods have increased by forty percent due to the millions of dollars the government spends on farm subsidies. These factors make them desirable by poorer consumers who work or go to school for long hours and persons with limited funds. Notably, fresh and frozen produce and organic foods were not on sale, further reflecting the lack of government funding for these healthier food items. Shoppers were dressed very casually in sweatpants and t-shirts, and people were more unkempt looking than at the farmers’ market, helping to support my assumption that the customers at Meijer were of a lower economic class. In addition, shoppers were more diverse when it came to race and ethnicity. There was little interaction between customers and employees, and customers did not interact with one another except to push past each other to hurry on their way. Perhaps this suggests subtle racism in that since customers were diverse, they subconsciously did not want to interact with each other. Shoppers spent little time browsing, and customers and employees interacted only when a customer requested help. Employees barely spoke to each other, for the busy pace of the store left little time for chit-chat.
Foods For Living, a smaller grocer, seemed to combine certain aspects of both the farmer’s market and Meijer. The store played audible but relaxing music over speakers, calming shoppers and encouraging them to browse aisles slowly rather than rushing through the store. All of the goods in the store were exceptionally organized, and not a product was out of place. This added to the customers’ desire to stay in the store to browse (and buy) goods. The goods for sale were also appealing in that many would not be found in a different type of grocery store: the shop included a large section of essential oils, a spice bar, and sections designated for Michigan-made foods. The items available reflected its clientele’s interest in a “healthy” lifestyle; supplements, energy bars, organic foods, and fresh, local foods were for sale. However, the products in this store were very expensive, especially when compared to similar goods found in Meijer. Foods For Living carries a variety of organic foods, and this label in particular drives up the prices of products: as Julie Guthman states, “[O]rganic food has been positioned as a niche product, even obtaining the moniker of ‘yuppie chow’” (431). Thus, not only is this store geared toward health-conscious people, but it also caters, once again, toward more affluent shoppers and excludes less economically-secure people. The customers were, once again just like at the farmers’ market, generally well-dressed and white. Unlike at Meijer, shoppers did not bump into each other or rush past each other; when two shoppers wanted to get to the same place in the store, one of them would politely wait for the other to go first, demonstrating that people of the same class and race tend to be more courteous to each other than they might be to people of a different class or race. Shoppers did not talk amongst themselves, but they did smile politely to each other. Employees chatted together, greeted customers entering the store, and offered assistance to shoppers, interacting with customers more than employees at Meijer. However, they did not go out of their way to get customers to buy goods as they had at the farmers’ market, instead leaving customers to their own devices when browsing food for sale.
As long as the government continues to subsidize the ingredients in processed foods and fails to fund organic and healthier foods, the farmers’ market and Foods for Living will continue to be the stores of choice for the more affluent, white customers, while Meijer and other such big-box stores (i.e. Walmart) will be the only option for those with limited income. Meijer is known for “one-stop shopping,” so for people with limited transportation, this is the only viable option where they can buy all their food at a reasonable price. Conversely, those who shop at the farmers’ market know full well they will have to finish their shopping elsewhere, further demonstrating their affluence (money and transportation). In addition, foods which has a shorter “field to fork” time, (such foods found in farmers’ markets) have more natural vitamins than foods with a longer “field to fork” time (such as processed foods found in supermarkets) and thus are more nutritious. Because poor people have less access to the fresher farm foods with more nutrition than do more affluent people, their food is less nutritious which can negatively impact learning, health, and employment. Foods for Living, although it allows people to complete their grocery shopping, is out of the way, and thus inconvenient in addition to being expensive. In Lansing, there are a wide variety of places for people to shop. However, due to differences in socioeconomic status, all grocery venue options are not true options for everyone.