Marcela Sánchez's column this week deals with the distribution of food in Latin America and illustartes the rise of supermarkets:
The market I frequent today opened in 1983. In the mid-1970s there were only 300 farmers markets in the United States. Now there are more than 3,000. Of the nearly $950 billion Americans spend on food each year, they are now spending more than $1 billion at these markets, a sum that seems sure to increase.
In Latin America the trend is in reverse. Small, open-air markets, like the ones on the outskirts of Bogota where you can still find farmers in traditional attire willing to haggle over prices, are being replaced by supermarkets at a faster pace than in any other developing region in the world. According to Michigan State University professor Thomas Reardon, in the 1980s supermarkets in Latin America served at most 10 percent to 20 percent of national food retail sales. By 2000, that share had risen to between 50 percent and 60 percent. In just one decade, Latin America witnessed the same growth of supermarkets that took five decades in the United States.
The supermarket boom is an outgrowth of the Washington Consensus reforms that increased privatization and free trade in Latin America in the 1990s. The reforms brought rapid development and increased disposable income to certain segments of the population, along with greater importation of food products and more international investors, including large international supermarket chains such as French-owned Carrefour.
It also appears that the reforms have helped combat hunger. Countries that import less than 10 percent of their food have a higher percentage of population going hungry. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, preliminary research shows that "engaging in agricultural trade is associated with less hunger, not more.''
What got my attention in this article was this:
[Author Brian] Halweil highlights other innovative examples of wedding the needs of the population with those of small farmers. More than 10 years ago, for instance, Brazil's third-largest city, Belo Horizonte, became determined to feed its malnourished residents. It began by facilitating the establishment of farmers markets throughout town and by providing more nutritious school meals made with local products. These and other projects cost the city less than 1 percent of its budget.
Funny she should mention Belo Horizonte. My favorite place in Belo Horizonte is the Mercado Central which is filled with small shops selling virtually everything. It is a great place to meet and chat (as I noted here, people from Minas Gerais are great conversationalists). I love going to farmer's markets and other public markets around the world: La Boqueiria in Barcelona, Granville Island in Vancouver, and virtually every other public market I've had the pleasure of visiting.
I'm all for helping fight hunger, but I certainly don't want to see it happen at the expense of social interaction. What supermarkets have done in large cities is serve to isolate citizens and as Sánchez notes, benefit large agribusiness at the expense of small farmers.