Food Insecurity: Upsetting ‘Apple Carts’ in Abstract and Tangible Markets

Susan Marie Martin

The words ‘food security’ are easily consigned to concerns with contamination, blight, or the inability to move goods across borders due to political tensions or war.  These scenarios are relegated in the minds of many to the developing world; the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, for example, articulates food security as ‘zero hunger’, the second goal after ‘no poverty’.  Food security as defined by the United Nations is, however, fundamental to all, anchored in conditions where “all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food”.  In short, it isn’t particular to the poor, nor is it particular to the developing world. 

Food insecurity is a universal that haunts daily life because much of the access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food is, pervasively, mediated by abstract market forces and the profit motive.  Foucault’s metaphor of the ‘carceral archipelago’, used in Discipline and Punish to depict the way discipline moves from a punitive centre to disparate corners of society and social relations, is useful in understanding how food insecurity grows out of the price mechanism; there the role of privilege, whether in the form of agribusiness or the bricks-and-mortar grocer, means that access comes at a price over which the consumer has reduced control.

The image of clusters of islands separated, near and far, by water in a vast sea is useful to visualize how social and economic power allow private interests to influence both social and public policies governing what is eaten, how it finds its way onto plates, and the share of disposable incomes it consumes.   Thus, the islands of food’s disciplinary archipelago are many, multilevel, and multiform. The most obvious exists in the macroeconomy where corporate interests exercise control at multiple locations in the supply chain.  From there the disciplinary effect of actions and transactions trickles down the supply chain, reaching into the microeconomy and down to street-based markets.  Ultimately, once it lands, the lives of the working poor, as both traders and consumers, are rearticulated according to the priorities of those with power.

The International Labour Organization has conceptualized the perversion of the price mechanism as a power imbalance created by corporate control via contracts; simultaneously, the discipline from these contracts flows vertically, from top to bottom.  Historically, wholesale markets allowed supply and demand to influence the price of raw materials that are turned into food and beverages.  However, “pre-arranged contractual agreements” now bind farmers, logisticians, processors and retailers “into a closely monitored and controlled chain”.  The “vertical coordination” of these arrangements, the ILO asserts, is in the hands of a few major controlling corporate interests. The disciplinary side effects, then, are felt by small-scale producers, vendors, and consumers through limits on availability, and loss of agency in transactions at the top.

Moving from the abstract market, discipline is found in the microeconomies of cities in both developed and developing countries, made visible in the work of developers and local authorities that has allowed street markets to be hyper-regulated out of assistance.  Prohibitions on street and stall traders in city centres limits access to affordable foodstuffs and, ultimately, opportunities for the poor to buy and earn.  An observation by Lynn Milgram helps the observer travel the line from food as a commodity subject to corporate contractual arrangements, to the battle over marketplaces in the economic margins.  She writes:  the “conjuncture of neoliberal economic policies with unprecedented urban growth” has made studies “of street vendors even more important to policy makers and social scientists investigating workers’ rights with transformations in the politics and economy of urban public space.” The rights of workers, naturally, extends to their right of access to those marketplaces as consumers.

Here is the juncture where discipline drifts across policy silos, from the economic to the social, and onwards into urban planning and regulation.  In North America, citizens are long accustomed to the absence of the street-based market, ad hoc or established, where fruits, vegetables, home-made bread, household fuel, and meat and fish are sold.  These bring together traders with consumers, in a space where a more transparent and tangible price mechanism operates in the form of the traders’ cries and consumers’ ability or willingness to pay the suggested price.  The power of a dominant, class-driven narrative to designate sanctioned location at which consumers enter the marketplace to purchase food is part of what Renana Jhabvala, refers to in The Role of Street Vendors in the Growing Urban Economies, as the “privacy and individualism” of the West.

It is the value placed on that privacy and individualism that has ‘classed’ both the experience of shopping for food, and that of making food available for sale.  According to Beverley Skeggs, class produces subjects through moral, political, and/or economic exchanges.  In the economic exchanges linked to food in the consumer marketplace, the street-based urban market ties the three together by favouring the propertied supply side, while facilitating planning geared to erasing street-based marketplaces in support of a ‘modern’ urban landscape.  In historic studies of New York City’s street markets, these market spaces came to be constructed by those in power, in both business and local government, as the marketplace of the margins, the preserve of the poor and immigrants

Starting in the nineteenth century across cities in the West, the rise of specialty-shops, department stores, and shopping arcades signified ‘inside’ as the place to shop, protecting the middle- and upper-class consumer from the mayhem and dirt of the city street.  This same movement has been underway since the late twentieth century in cities in the developing world seeking to ‘rebrand’ themselves as global financial hubs.  Across time and space, even wealthy condominium owners, independent of corporate control, are privileged in the regulatory and urban planning processes that exclude street traders.  Thus, the price mechanism governing food sales, then as now, is easily appropriated which, in turn, limits the voice of both consumers and small-scale producers in setting the market price. 

Operating under the philosophical mentorship of Le Corbusier, John Cross asserts that modern urban planning came to be conceptualized as a means of preventing shapelessness, willfulness, and poverty.  As a marketplace classified as ‘pre-modern’, a food market operated by street traders in public space, long associated with disorder and dirt, makes poverty visible in the efficient modern city.  Writing of street-based sales of food everywhere across the twentieth century, Cross and Morales observe that street traders assembled in public space stand in stark contrast to “larger hygienic commercial establishments” such as supermarkets. 

While a gentrified shopping experience continues to dominate social narratives, the choice of where to buy food and at what price remains the choice of the consumer who chooses to cross class lines, going markets where small-scale vendors, including street traders, proliferate.  Ironically, just as the ‘experience’ of shopping for food has been gentrified, large supermarkets are now designing produce counters to resemble market stalls.  The guise of an ‘old world’ market experience but without the means for a consumer to haggle.  Thus, the price mechanism remains firmly in the control of the corporate grocer, access by small-scale producers remains limited, and street traders remain relegated to the ‘pre-modern’ past.

Susan Marie Martin is a historical sociologist, and holds a Phd. in Applied Social Studies from University College Cork. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on the impact of gentrification on the urban poor. Her book, The Shawlies: Cork’s Women Street Traders in the ‘Merchants City’ was published in 2017. She is a regular member of the Social Policy Association (UK), and the International Sociological Association. Twitter: @smariem13

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