At the local farmers market during late summer, the price is right on ripe heirloom tomatoes, and the quality can be incomparable. So of course a lot of people who love good, fresh produce are going to show up to buy them. But new research from the University of Iowa indicates that when we hand over cash for our local Cherokee Purples, we’re engaged in a lot more than food shopping.

It’s unique for research to combine qualitative and quantitative results. Empirically, we know there were 8,268 farmers markets operating in 2014, up 180 percent since 2006. What’s harder to understand, and what the paper’s coauthors are still reviewing, is why.

“The surprise is that there really are a variety of reasons why people go to the farmers market,” said study coauthor Ion Vasi. Those reasons go beyond the improved freshness and taste of a higher-quality product. In jargon-heavy academia, farmers markets fit into what theorists call “moralized markets.” In common parlance, we might say we’re shopping our values, or, put more politically, voting with our dollar.

“The value of the product is not just the economic transaction, it’s also the social currency that goes into it,” Vasi explained. What methods were used to grow the vegetables? Who picked them? Was that person paid a fair wage? All of these issues come to bear in the moralized marketplace, where “part of the value put on the product is the human side of how it is produced,” he said. Marketers have caught on to this, of course, which is why seemingly eco-friendly companies are charged with greenwashing and consumers are getting hip to health halos.

The idea that our food choices are political and that there are human and environmental costs (which are often hidden) to our industrial food system is what’s changing the way people shop. Farmers market shoppers, as well as co-op members and CSA subscribers, participate in the moralized market with the perception that they are paying for food produced in line with their values about personal and public health, environmental sustainability, and/or animal welfare. The study found farmers markets were significantly more likely to exist in cities with more volunteer associations and where there’s a history of health and environmental advocacy.

The harder-to-quantify result from the research is our human desire to connect and food’s unique ability to facilitate that. Asked why they shop at their local markets, respondents mentioned the atmosphere, the “hometown feel,” live music, and that people “seem happy.”

“The community aspect is very strong for many people,” Vasi said. “We looked at theories that would explain the relationships people have in the markets. We had a gut feeling that this may have something to do with people wanting to connect to each other.”

In other words, we’re not only shopping at the farmers market because of increased awareness of the human costs of food but for the greater, contextually meaningful human connections themselves.
“It’s something that indicates there is something we kind of lost and are nostalgic and yearn for as a society,” Vasi added. It’s an ineffable feeling absent at chain supermarket megastores, even as many increasingly carry local and organic products.

Vasi’s previous work focused on issues of grassroots community—why do some communities adopt local resolutions on everything from civil liberties to peace to immigration? His interest in studying local food is an extension of that research. Based on farmers market growth numbers alone, he said, “It’s one of the most important types of change happening right now.”