It’s a rainy Saturday morning in Whitefish and The Farmers’ Stand (TFS), the new 100% farmer-owned market in town, is bustling with activity.
The two goals of TFS are 1. to provide their community with fresh and nutritious food, while 2. supporting small sustainable farms in the region by sourcing as close to home as possible. All products sold are Certified Organic, grown with organic practices, and/or contain no questionable ingredients (including fresh meals and salads from their Grab and Go section). And to date, TFS has sold vegetables, fruit, meat, dairy, grains, and oils from over 25 Montana producers.
I sit with Todd Ulizio, one of the four farmer-owners, as he explains the dual meaning of the market’s name. “The Farmers’ Stand” might seem like an obvious name a group of farmers might choose for a store they opened together, but there are two meanings: a play on the traditional farm stand, yes, but also something a bit more meaningful.
Todd smiles mischievously as the lightbulb goes off above my head, “The real meaning behind it is that this is a bunch of farmers taking a stand. We’re drawing a line in the sand and saying: this is what food needs to be.”
Todd explains, American people understand the cost of quality. When we choose an iPhone over a flip phone, we understand why it costs 10x more–we’re getting more value and more functionality. We understand that with just about everything: phones, cars, sports equipment, hotels, the list goes on and on. “But,” Todd explains, “…for some reason with food, all that reasoning goes out the window. When people who have the means to afford good food go out to shop for food, many don’t seem to pay attention to value, but focus only on price.” Or to put it another way, when budgeting how to spend money, people make food a low priority.
But if we apply the same logic we use when we buy a new phone or a new car, the logic that says “you get what you pay for”, then what are we getting when we buy the cheapest food?
Todd doesn’t leave it up to my imagination, and outlines what we get: the degradation of soil and human health, lack of biodiversity, the addition of chemicals to our landscape and our bodies, and dying bee populations, to name just a few.
Todd adds, “The industrial food system has given consumers “cheap food”, but they’re not accounting for all the costs. They’re not accounting for 60% chronic illness or the $120 Billion in taxpayer subsidies that are going to the farms. Or the destruction of soil and its long term ability to grow food for future generations. If the true costs of industrial food were reflected in the sticker price, this issue would resolve itself real quick.”
I pick up a turkey sandwich and read the price. $12. A fairly normal price if you were to get a sandwich at a restaurant, but a bit more than if you were to grab a sandwich from the deli at the grocery store. But all sandwiches are not created equal. This sandwich has freshly baked bread made from 100% organic wheat grown in Montana. The turkey is organic. The cheese and toppings are organic from local farms. And the tarragon mayonnaise is organic and made from scratch in the kitchen. No preservatives, lots of nutrition, no ag chemicals, and no questionable ingredients. Todd would argue that’s a lot of value for $12.
I ask Todd how he feels that this kind of healthy food isn’t accessible to everyone. He says it’s tricky. “I would love to feed everybody good food, but I can’t pay a farmer a fair price and put the practices in place to grow high quality nutritious food and keep the chemicals out and manage habitat and not get a government subsidy to do it and not have huge economies of scale, and then sell it to you for the same price as you get at the grocery store.”
So, how do we bridge the gap between what people are used to seeing at the big name grocery stores and what it actually costs for good, healthy food?
Todd says, “As farmers, it is super important for us to convey to consumers that not all food is equal (either in value or nutrition). Where it comes from and how it is grown has huge impacts on our health and the health of the landscape. While the industrial food system tries to be as opaque as possible, not letting consumers see where the food they eat is coming from (which thereby allows some horrific practices), we are taking the opposite approach. We are supporting farms that use good practices that promote human and landscape health, and we are telling their stories to shed light on the importance of this. Full transparency as opposed to greenwashing. When consumers start to identify with farmers, and understand how their purchasing choices impact their own health and the health of the landscape around them, maybe they start to understand what they are paying for with their food dollar. They will better understand the value proposition. I think the best way to change consumer habits and choices is to give them a positive(and truthful) story to engage in. Hence our motto ‘Your food has a story’. “
Education is important and necessary, but it still doesn’t address the structural issues with our food system that are preventing people from being able to access healthy, local food. We have to ask ourselves: why are some people unable to participate? And how can we work toward a local food system that everyone can participate in? These are not issues that one store can solve on its own, but stores like The Farmers’ Stand is a step in the right direction.
Sammie McGowan is the Communications Supervisor for Abundant Montana. She lives in Whitefish with her four-legged best friend, Charlie. She is deeply in love with nature and enjoys getting to know each and every bird and flower she comes across while hiking. Contact her with your favorite hikes at [email protected]!