The Safeway Formula: Throw Produce Onto Parking Lot, Pitch Tent, Call It "Farmers Market"

Whose fields? Who cares?
Last week, the story broke that a Kirkland Safeway was advertising a weekend "Farmer's Market." When Martha Tyler, manager of the nearby Redmond Saturday Farmers Market, drove by and spotted Safeway's banner, she went in to ask for more details. Tyler was told that Safeway was going "to be setting up tents and selling Safeway produce by Safeway employees farmers-market style."

Tyler wrote a letter about Safeway's deception to the Kirkland Reporter, and the Washington State Farmers Market Association followed with a letter to Safeway, noting that state law defines farmers' markets as including five or more growers selling directly to consumers. Safeway hastily offered to remove the term "Farmers Market," and is going forward with a "weekend outdoor market."

Farmers market organizers and local food advocates are right to be infuriated by Safeway's tactics, but this faux farmers market incident points to a much larger problem the local food movement faces.

In KUOW's story, Chris Curtis, director of the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, said it was hardly a surprise that Safeway would want to tap into the "idyllic image" of farmers markets. "Farmers' markets are ubiquitous," said Curtis. "And certainly they're part of the summertime shopping experience."

It's true that farmers markets in Seattle are ubiquitous (18 and counting!)--some might even say excessive. But here's the reality nationwide: the top 10 food retailers now control 82% of retail food sales in this country. That's up from last year's number of 65%. The top dogs are Wal-Mart, Kroger (QFC, Fred Meyer), and Costco, but Safeway is right up there. (Based on their 2005 revenue of 40.5 billion dollars, Safeway is the third largest supermarket chain in the country, and the tenth largest retailer in the United States.) And according to the USDA, farmers markets account for less than 1% of the agricultural products sold in this country.

In this region, we're lucky: local food abounds, and so do the customers who seek it out. But the most dedicated Seattle locavores, proudly toting our Shuksan strawberries and Skagit River grass-fed beef, should remember we're still very much in the minority--even within the Seattle city limits. There are way more people out there for whom savoring summer means biting into a Driscoll's berry... probably purchased at Safeway. And summer still tastes sweet.

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