Markets Creating Communities, Not Just Selling Food

Today at Salone del Gusto a panel discussion presented Slow Food’s new Earth Markets initiative, explaining how these farmers’ markets could do much more than just bringing producers and consumers in direct contact, but could also create an important community space, building a bridge between rural and urban areas and uniting various social groups.

Piero Sardo, President of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, moderated the conference held at 12 pm at Turin’s Lingotto exhibition center. He explained that the “Mercati della Terra,” or Earth Markets, were an international network of farmers’ markets promoted by Slow Food in partnership with the Tuscany Regional Authority and ARSIA, the Tuscan regional agency for the development and innovation of agriculture and forestry. The first markets have already been set up in Italy, Lebanon and Israel, giving producers a place to sell their products at a fair price.

The promoter of the first Earth Market, in Montevarchi in Tuscany, Luca Fabbri, described it as a kind of “laboratory” for the project, with the intention being to replicate the model around the world. He emphasized that: “the Earth Markets are not just a tool for selling but also for local development, a social tool where communities can meet.”

Next to speak Rami Zurayk, an agriculture professor at the University of Beirut, widened the scope by recounting the experience of setting up three Earth Markets in Lebanon. The markets in Tripoli and Saida are already up and running, while the one in Beirut is scheduled to open next November. “Lebanon imports 70% of its food and government investment in agriculture is less than 1% of the total budget, while 75% of producers are farming less than one hectare,” he said, outlining some of the problems farmers had in finding a market for their food and receiving a fair remuneration.

Zurayk described how in the aftermath of the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in July 2006, the country received an aid package from Italy, some of which was used to rebuild livelihoods. This provided the impetus for setting up the Earth Markets in collaboration with the Tuscan-based non-government organization UCODEP. These markets are important economic multipliers, business incubators, he said, and importantly they also provide meeting places and a neutral space in a strife-riven country. “Not just good, clean and fair, but good, clean, fair and peace,” he said.

Maria Grazia Mammuccini, ARSIA administrator, then spoke for Tuscany, emphasizing the role of Earth Markets in promoting biodiversity, seasonal foods, sustainability, equity and transparency. Her organization provides training, information and research to help set up short supply chains, and she said she hoped the alliance with Slow Food would assist them to find appropriate solutions for problems such as how to transform such markets from a weekly or monthly frequency to somewhere consumers can do their everyday shopping.

The focus then shifted to Piedmont in Italy’s north, with Mino Taricco, the region’s agriculture councilor, talking about the risk of young people in urban centers losing touch with the seasonality of food and where it comes from. Farmers’ markets are one attempt to redress this, as are educational farms. Piedmont, he said, is in the process of setting up a brand which band together local farmers’ markets, giving them a forum for communication and a guarantee of certification.

Executive director Richard McCarthy represented the American NGO Market Umbrella. His organization is working to develop methodologies to measure the success of farmers’ markets, which he said: “are a way to raise financial, human and social capital.” He also mentioned that they were thought of as old-fashioned, but that markets must be seen as mechanisms to bridge relationships. “Markets become much more important than food,” he said. “They can be bridges between the urban and rural and between different social classes.” He described a project to target isolated senior citizens in which they are brought to farmers’ markets where they are able to use their food vouchers, and another to put a surcharge on credit cards to create a pool of money that can be used for innovation and investment.

Then it was back to Europe with Jim Turnbull, co-founder of the ADEPT foundation and the first Romanian farmers’ market. He talked the audience through the complicated process of setting up the market in Bucharest, following the Earth Market model. He mentioned some of the difficulties – for example they experienced difficulties on stipulating a maximum distance from which to source producers from, as they had trouble finding enough producers in the whole country. But he also cited successes, such as a cheesemaker who in December 2006 was trying to sell his goats because he couldn’t sell his cheeses, but who was now buying more animals because of his success at the market.

Concluding the meeting was Franco Pasquali, the Secretary-General of Coldiretti, an organization that represents 64% of all the farmers in Italy. He said that Italy’s hundreds of thousands of piazzas were a specific regional and social characteristic that assists the farmers’ markets to succeed. “This is a constructive dialog with Slow Food on how to build a piece of the future,” he said, “and how to build important new connections between communities.”

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