Alison Hope Alkon, Ph.D.
Sociology Professor Explores the ‘Black, White, and Green’ of Farmers Markets
For Alison Hope Alkon, Ph.D., the farmers market isn't just a place to buy organic, locally grown food. It's a place to do her research-and study how issues of food and the environment interconnect with issues of inequality and social justice.
Alkon, assistant professor and co-chair of the Department of Sociology in the College of the Pacific, explores these themes in depth in her latest book, Black, White, and Green: Farmers Markets, Race and the Green Economy. In it, she compares life at two Bay Area farmers markets: one in primarily white, affluent North Berkeley, and the other in mostly black, low-income West Oakland.
Since the book's release last year, Alkon, who joined the Pacific faculty in 2008, has been speaking at universities around the country and has been featured in such news outlets as The Huffington Post and Pacifica Radio.
Q. How did you get interested in food and social justice?
A. When I went to graduate school at UC Davis, I studied environmental justice, which looks at how environmental benefits and hazards are distributed. At the same time, I was living in a student-run cooperative, where we lived on three acres and had organic gardens, raised chickens and served as leaders and educators in campus sustainability.
My research ended up combining all those interests: organic food, environmental sustainability and issues of inequality.
Q. How were the Berkeley and West Oakland markets different?
A. Both markets had people doing work around environmental issues and social justice. But that work looked very different in each market. Berkeley led with the environmental goals: sustainability, healthy soil and clean air and water.
The Oakland market, meanwhile, was primarily about supporting black farmers, who had suffered from racism, and about making healthy food available in a neighborhood where, largely because of racism, it wasn't. For them, racial justice came first.
Q. The West Oakland market closed in 2008. What happened?
A. Sales were never huge, like they are in Berkeley. The farmers were basically doing it as a labor of love, but it just wasn't economically viable. Even though farmers were deeply discounting the food, it was still more expensive than processed food. I did focus groups with local residents, and almost to a person, people said, "We don't have enough money" to shop there.
Q. Advocates of organic food and sustainable farming often promote "voting with your fork." You argue that's not enough. Why?
A. It's easier to vote with your fork, or your dollars, than it is to do politics. The problem is that people who don't have dollars don't get to vote. If you want more people to have access to healthy, sustainably grown food-regardless of income-then you have to think about things like raising the minimum wage or changing food policy, so that we subsidize organic food instead of processed food. And that requires political action.
Consumption-based activism is certainly a good step. But I think people delude themselves when they think that it's enough.
Q. What do you enjoy about teaching at Pacific?
A. The students. Pacific students are so engaged in their communities. They're really using their education to go back to their communities and make them better places. Because class sizes are small, I get to know them as whole people with ideals and visions of who they want to be and the world they want to live in. Then, as their professor, I get to support them in those endeavors. That's what I love most.