Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

Linda Aleci: Associate Professor of Art and Art History

Session: Product Networks and Community Economies

Central Market and Lancaster's Community Food System: Issues, Challenges, Opportunities

Much of the material in this paper is developed from the first results of an on-going research project spearheaded by the Friends of Central Market, undertaken in conjunction with the Local Economy Center, Innovation Focus Inc. and the Seachrist Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, and begun in 2001i. In this first phase of investigation, the research team looked at historical patterns of food shopping in Lancaster, collected some baseline information on current Central Market customers and their shopping habits, the changing product mix at Central Market, comparative food prices, and the Market’s relationship to underserved neighborhoods in our city. We also conducted on-site surveys of a cohort of growers, identified through the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, who might be inclined to participate in direct-to-consumer marketing structures.

Obviously the present paper will not be as comprehensive. Instead I will use it to suggest the relevance of food access to our discussion of a local economy, and give an overview of a few broad trends related to food production and access in Lancaster. While the perspectives I offer today are not those typically found in the academic discipline of economics or economic development, they reflect decades of work by agrarians, urban and regional planners, and policy advisors in the field of community food systems.

Community food systems planning can be an important part of urban and rural revitalization initiatives precisely because it integrates local economic and community development. The principal aim of a community food system is to strengthen regional economic self-reliance through local ownership of needs-driven industriesii as a function of ensuring a community’s access to fresh, healthful food. In effect, by integrating and enhancing local food production, direct and equitable access to local retail and processing markets, and institutional procurement of local agricultural commodities, a community food system connects and magnifies rural and urban economies as a function of meeting the food needs of local households and individuals.

No less important, community food systems planning occurs explicitly within a framework of "public goods," those things that are basic to a decent life, independent of personal wealth—clean environments, good health, socially just decision-making processes at the public level, freedom from the fear of want.iii Such things, including decent, affordable, and nutritious food, support thriving communities; in aggregate, they contribute to community wealth.

Slide 1 illustrates this point. This is the cover to an issue of Hour Town published in Ithaca, New York—home to both the renowned "Ithaca Hours" as well as one of the greatest farmers’ markets in the U.S. The slide contrasts the collective impact of the global food system, from which we buy food processed and sourced through geographically extended networks, with a community food system that redirects local agricultural products to local markets. It shows how a community food system multiplies ways to directly access locally grown and produced foods through supply lines like farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, locally-owned grocery stores, and community gardens. At every step of the supply line—from growing and harvesting, processing and transporting, to buying, selling and consuming—the emphasis is on creating local economic opportunities. Thus a community food system helps intensify the regional circulation of dollars as well as improving access to fresh, nutritious foods, building community resources and community health. In the process, food takes its place in a "value chain" in which all parties in the chain work together as "partners" to bring the product of unique value into the market place.

The model of the community food system also differs significantly from the short-term emergency measures cities typically take when confronting hunger. A food systems approach is long term and systemic, emphasizing local self-reliance and entrepreneurship: a city or region develops its own resources to ensure on-going physical and economic access to food for all citizens. To be sure, food systems planning can sometimes challenge traditional models for community development in the way that it cuts across multiple urban-rural sectors.iv To the extent that it is not simply reactive and piecemeal in approach however, it ultimately can be far more sustainable and effective a tool for rural development, neighborhood revitalization, and community health.

The work of developing such a food system for Lancaster begins with the process of describing the current state of our food system in order to identify some of the strategic issues we face. So while I won’t be speaking directly to the current economic of Lancaster’s food system, I will highlight a few key agricultural and urban trends typically used to monitor the health of a local food system.

I will begin with Central Market as an indicator of the state of the regional circulation of foods, as well as to forecast its capacity to anchor a community food system. While this may seem quaint, the economic relationships between local food production, marketing networks, and consumption clearly show that farmers’ markets are essential institutions for connecting producers and consumers. Not surprisingly, community development at the municipal level in the U.S. increasingly uses farmers’ markets to generate larger regional public benefits that are social, economic, and health-related.v

When we began our research at Central Market, we did not begin with a theoretical notion of a community food system. We were well aware that as recently as the 1960’s, Lancaster enjoyed a relatively stable food system in which the city’s farmers’ markets played a significant role, supplying local agricultural products from small family farms to the city population, and serving as the sites for several hundred small food businesses. Lancaster’s shopping habits were also profoundly shaped by the presence of two active markets in the downtown, the Central and the Southern Markets, located a block away on South Queen and Vine Streets.

Slide 2 and Slide 3 indicate the distribution of households served by the Central and Southern Markets a little over 40 years ago. Surveys conducted by the City Planning Commission in 1962 found that City residents were heavily dependent on both those markets for regular food purchases, with the majority of shoppers spending between $10 and $20 per visit. 90% of customers used Central and Southern Markets weekly; only 3% of Central Market and 4% of Southern Market customers regularly shopped in suburban shopping centers. Household shopping was supplemented by smaller to mid-sized stores located in the 4 quadrants of the city such as Darrenkamp’s in the southwest district known as Cabbage Hill.

Let’s look for a moment at the cluster of households served by the Southern Market (Slide 3).  They are distributed along the north-south corridors of Queen and Prince Streets below King Street, in the southeast neighborhoods corresponding to the 9th and 16th census tracts, and to the southwest in the 10th and 14th census tracts (Manor Street is the artery that splits south off King, forming one piece of the "wishbone" comprising King, Columbia Avenue, and Manor). The Planning Commission report found it significant that while only 1% of individuals sampled at the Southern Market were employed downtown, 66% of these customers went to the downtown solely to do their marketing, and 34% took the opportunity to shop in downtown stores or visit various other places. About a quarter of these individuals walked, while more than half used automobile transportation.

With the introduction of supermarkets to the metro region during the late fifties and sixties, and their rapid expansion in the suburban peripheries during the 1980’s, local patterns of grocery shopping began to shift, ultimately leading the City to close the Southern Market in 1987. Workforce trends and their impact on "lifestyle choices"—creating a demand for convenient food preparation, one-stop shopping and the like—presumably also played a part in these changes, increasingly directing shoppers towards supermarkets as their primary food source. Paradoxically, the City tended to downplay these trends, instead promoting Central Market as an icon of Lancaster’s rural identity and an example of the city’s historic architecture. Even today the city website continues to carry an effusive description of Central Market as "the country’s oldest farmers’ market, in the heart of Amish country [and occupying] a beautiful 109-year old …building chock full of local character."vi Nonetheless, by the late 1990’s, the Central Market Standholders Association expressed deep concern that the customer base at Central Market was changing, and apparently shrinking. This then, was the impetus for our research.

It is striking, the way that Central Market notionally preserves certain cherished beliefs about Lancaster when the reality of course, is quite different. Central Market is located in the heart of what is now a racially and ethnically mixed city. According to the 2000 Census, 31% of Lancaster’s population is Latino—the most rapidly growing demographic in the City—and 14% African-American. Lancaster is also economically stratified: 18% of city families and 21% of individual citizens live below poverty thresholds. Significant poverty (>30%) is found in 6 of its census tracts; the area immediately surrounding Central Market contains some of our most impoverished residents, with per capita incomes between $8,000 and $12,000 (Slide 4). The areas of the city with the highest population of self-identified Latinos are also those with the lowest per capita incomes. This population is disproportionately concentrated in the southeast and southwest quadrant, to Vine St., areas also marked by hunger and disease related to poor diets (Slide 5).

In spite of its central urban location, the Market has very little to do with large segments of the city’s population. We know from our surveying that it has a relatively low social to geographic correlation. That is, it draws largely White and affluent people from the western part of the city and townships and from many different areas of the County.vii This will likely increase as the Quilt Museum, high end galleries, and of course the Convention Center attract visitors from out of town and from wealthier areas of the county.

Indeed, in our first round of year-long ethnographic interviews with members of the Hispanic community (both at Central Market and several bodegas located in the southeast) the Latinos with whom we spoke clearly indicated that, by and large they did not perceive Central Market as either a socially or economically accessible place to buy food. This response is notable inasmuch as the reality of price comparisons with a range of city stores showed that in the category of fresh produce, Central Market is competitive with Save-a-lot, a limited-brand grocery company located on South Queen Street;viii it is much less expensive than any of the smaller stores or Giant supermarket.

Both the executive officers of the Standholders’ Association and some members of City Council have noted this absence of African-American and Hispanic citizens with concern. To my mind however, the question is not simply how we diversify Central Market’s customer base. The conspicuous absence from the Market of African-Americans and Hispanics is only one symptom of profounder economic and demographic shifts in this region. In effect Central Market itself is becoming absorbed into, if not entirely displaced by, a structural reorganization of Lancaster’s food system that has occured over the past 3 decades. Fueled in part by the suburbanization of the County, changes in agricultural production, food distribution and retailing not only have eroded local patterns of food production, access and consumption, it has significantly polarized the regional food system.

I’ll highlight some key trends of only the last decade, beginning with the changing face of Lancaster farming.

As Slide 6 shows, the loss of County farms continues apace: one out of every 15 farms in Lancaster County was lost between 1997 and 2002 with the loss concentrated in small to mid-size farms: between 1997 and 2002, 67% of the farms lost in the County were below 50 acres in size. This decline should not be taken to mean that small farms are necessarily less productive, or that they fail to achieve levels of efficiency reached by large farms. As the economic research of the Agriculture of the Middle Project shows, farm productivity is not necessarily a phenomenon of scale (though it is related to scale), but of market structures. Smaller to mid-size farms can be, in effect, the most entrepreneurial class of farmers. To stay in business they need to enhance their economic viability by capturing more of the consumer dollar, and have shown themselves to be the most flexible in cropping, the most likely to make value-added products for so-called niche-markets, and the most likely to sell directly to consumers;ix Yet during the same five-year period the number of Lancaster County farms selling directly to consumers declined by 40%; between 1982 and 2002 the number of Lancaster County farms selling directly to consumers declined by 60% (Slide 7). 

Central Market is not isolated from these trends. Fresh produce now constitutes only 15% of the total number of Central Market businesses whereas 15 years ago it comprised 25% of Central Market businesses: delicatessen and prepared foods, as well as baked goods, now dominate the product lines at Market (Slide 8). Let’s further look at produce stands as a distinct category within Central Market  (Slide 9).  The decline in grower-operated stands representing small family farm businesses has been accompanied by the expansion in the size of stands dominated by produce from the Philadelphia and Jessup, Maryland terminal markets, sourced with products grown in California, Florida, Mexico, and more distant supply chains. Three stands offering large quantities of relatively uniform types of supermarket produce now occupy over 50% of the produce stand units available at Market. Currently, only one grower sells produce supplied exclusively from his own farm.x

This is truly paradoxical: if there is to be a competitive economic edge in Lancaster’s agricultural production it should be found precisely in supplying consumers with the County’s locally-grown produce. "Lancaster County Produce" in itself has become a brand name that sells very well, and commands high prices, in metro area farmers’ markets like the Eastern Market in Washington D.C., Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, and the Green Markets of New York City. But not, apparently, in our own.

Another significant trend is the County’s increasing dependence on supermarket chains: the largest stores (50+ employees) have steadily expanded from about 4% of the total number of grocery stores in 1970 to about 38% in 2002. Conversely the smallest grocery stores have decreased steadily in number (from 39% to 19% in 1996). 30 years ago, only one in every 27 grocery stores was a supermarket; today more than 1 store in five is a supermarket (Slide 10 and Slide 11). 

This means, practically speaking, that access to food for all populations is increasingly car-dependent, as most supermarkets follow affluent populations into the exurban and suburban areas. But there are particular ramifications for city populations. Smaller to medium-sized grocery stores serving neighborhoods are gradually disappearing; we are also seeing patterns of instability and relocation in this sector. To give only two recent examples, in 1999, Darrenkamp’s left Cabbage Hill for Willow Valley Square; last year Bob’s Food Rite, a comparably sized store on the corner of East King and Ann Streets closed. This leaves three retail sources with enough fresh food—especially produce—to feed a household within the walkable borders of the City: Central Market in the center of downtown, Save-a-lot on South Queen Street, and Giant Foods on Reservoir Road in the northwest (Slide 12). 

The dependence of the city’s northwest quadrant on Giant supermarket directly raises the question of Lancaster’s on-going food security. Giant, owned by the Dutch corporation Ahold, had planned to leave the city in 1999/2000 to become the anchor in a supercenter proposed on the site of the Stockyards. At that time their management made it known that they would not renew their lease on Reservoir Road when it came due in 2006-2007; their intentions remain an open question. Were they to leave, there would be a serious impact on the neighborhood. Given Giant’s history in other towns, the potential of attracting another supermarket to that site is also an open question: in places like Gettysburg Pennsylvania, the corporation successfully suppressed food retailing competition when the supermarket left downtown for a suburban retail location.

In any event, the compounded impacts of a bifurcated food system will be borne directly, and most severely, by lower and middle-income households. Relatively affluent consumers who are comparatively unconstrained in terms of where they can shop, have the means to drive to the supermarket, if they so choose. They might equally decide to use Central Market, although there is no inherent reason, at the moment, why they should.xi Lower- and even some moderate-income households on the other hand, have diminishing access to fresh, affordable foods. Micro food systems, characterized by small neighborhood bodegas and corner stores that are relatively accessible by foot and largely independent of the center city, have already developed in Lancaster’s income-strapped neighborhoods—not surprisingly, since this is where households tend not to have access to personal transportation and cannot easily travel to supermarkets.

The correlation between income, personal transportation, and the spatial distribution of stores is shown in Slide 12, Slide 13, and Slide 14. (The pattern of distribution of corner stores along South Queen and South Prince Streets, and throughout the neighborhoods of the southeast and southwest is a troubling reminder that the Southern Market traditionally served the food needs of these areas until it closed in 1987.) Slide 13 shows a clear correlation between low-income households and the geographic concentration of small food stores; it suggests that as poverty creeps north along Prince and Queen Streets, one can also expect to see food retailing patterns similar to those in the southeast recurring in other areas of the city. It also speaks to a vicious cycle in which physical access and economic access to food are correlates: lower-income households become reliant on mini-marts and corner stores where foodstuffs are much more expensive, thus spending a disproportionate amount of their income on food (Slide 15).

Although we did not quantify them, there are additional health costs. As well as being more expensive, small corner stores tend to carry more processed foods, with higher sugar, salt, and fat contents. As Slide 12 shows, these stores rarely carry a selection of fresh fruits and vegetables.



The research on Central Market and Lancaster’s community food system was not a comprehensive community food system assessment.xii Nonetheless, it implicitly points to the need for a research agenda for a local economy that incorporates the perspectives of community food system planning. An expanded research agenda would not only evaluate the local economic impacts of the current food system. It might also look at the array of institutional, social, economic, and cultural factors that impede the Central Market’s capacity to function, as it once did, as the city’s primary center for locally-grown foods, including an examination of the economic disincentives that keep local growers from coming into the Central Market. A larger question that needs sustained investigation concerns the economics of direct marketing of agricultural products along the Washington-NYC metro corridor, and the interplay with Lancaster’s food system.xiii No information exists to show how much local produce flows out of Lancaster County, and how many Lancaster County growers currently sell in the Philadelphia metro area, NYC, and Baltimore-Washington markets—although any visitor to Washington’s Eastern Market, the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, and New York’s Green Markets cannot help but notice their presence.xiv

An expanded research agenda would include a profitability analysis of existing and alternative supply chains between local producers and institutional (hospitals, schools, and major businesses) as well as household consumers. It could examine the potential to integrate small scale, urban-based, locally owned food processing businesses into a comprehensive plan for community development, as other communities have done. It might equally undertake a second phase of research in low-income neighborhoods to clarify and better meet their food needs.xv Without this research Lancaster will not be prepared to frankly and systemically address, as a matter of strategic municipal and county planning policy, the complex interplay of urban and rural economies, and of food haves- and have-nots, within a bifurcating food system.

This has added significance for Lancaster. Until very recently, Central Market was one of the first, and last remaining municipally-held markets functioning in the United States; that fact alone made Lancaster one of the great historic civic models in which food was identified as a public good as a condition of the city’s very being. Central Market and Lancaster came into existence literally of a piece, constituted in 1730 from the same plot of land; the borough was formally chartered as a market town 12 years later by King George II of England. Both the original land grant and the royal charter clearly define the purpose of the Central Market, deeded to the citizens of Lancaster to be maintained on their behalf by the municipality: the plot of land embodies a principal of justice—salus populi, for the good of the people—where food, commerce, and civic life are created and given reality in social practice. As a public market, Central Market defines both a common ground, and food as a common good, something that must be shared by all of us and so binds us together. Thus the legal obligation of the city, by historic charter, is to maintain this function in the Market’s operations.xvi

Significantly, between the beginning of our initial research on Central Market and now, the City undertook the process of divesting itself of the operational and managerial components of the Market while retaining direct responsibility for the building itself. If City Council, the current governing body for the Market, and other relevant authorities agree, these functions will be turned over to a new non-profit entity comprised of representatives from City and County government, business, finance and agricultural sectors, and others, following a common path in the management of farmers markets.

The intention is to create a more flexible, adaptive mechanism that will enable the Market to remain viable in a competitive food retailing environment.xvii It occurs, as I have described, alongside the deterioration of a food system that equitably meets the needs of consumers and producers, and as Central Market is assimilated into a network of dispersed social and economic relationships. Whether or not the change of governance of Lancaster’s public food source will be an effective response to a transforming food system or is another symptom of it remains to be seen.

iCentral Market and Lancaster’s Community Food System: Issues, Challenges Opportunities. Local Economy Center, Working Paper 1. The research team included myself (grocery store and food shopping trends; Central Market product trends), Jennifer Clowers and Elizabeth Concra (emergency food provision and nutritional data), Sarah Dolan (ethnographic surveys), Kurt Wiesenmaier (Central Market customer base), and Sarah Yanosy (food prices). Professors Antonio Callari and Sean Flaherty provided additional advice and guidance; Bree Gillespie of Innovation Focus trained the customer surveyors and oversaw the process of data collection. This research was possible only because of the hard work of these individuals, and much thanks is owed to the entire team.

Special thanks are owed to CLAS, the Local Economy Center, The Christian Johnson Foundation, and the Seachrist family, for their generous support of this work; Berwood Yost and Christina Abbott of the Floyd Institute for Public Policy, have also been generous with assistance translating some of the data we collected into the tables and graphs found here.

iiThe expression is Michael Shuman’s from Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age (New York: The Free Press, 1998).

iiiSee for example Anne C. Bellows and Michael W. Hamm, "U.S.-Based Community Food Security: Influences, Practice, Debate," Journal for the Study of Food and Society, 6 (Winter 2002): 31-44;

ivK. Pothukuchi and J.L. Kaufman, "The Food System: A stranger to the Planning Field," APA Journal, 66, n. 2 (Spring 2000):113-24; ibid., "Placing the food system on the urban agenda: The role of municipal institutions in food systems planning," Agriculture and Human Values, 16 (1999): 213-24.

vFor example, in one year (1995) the Dane County Farmers' Market in Madison Wisconsin contributed nearly 5 million dollars to the local farm economy; the much smaller Santa Fe New Mexico market generated 3/4 million dollars during the same period; and the Greenmarkets of New York City more than $20 million in sales to regional growers. The most spectacular success story is Seattle’s Pike Place Market, where a one-time, 7 million dollar grant invested in the redevelopment of the market has become the most successful economic development projects in history, according to the audit performed by the US Economic Development Administration. (USDA Conference on Access to Food, Sept. 18-19, 1995. Report of the Proceedings, November 1996, p. 11). Smaller but no less impressive success stories are found across the U.S.: in the Eastern Market, District of Columbia; the River Market in Little Rock Arkansas; and markets in Syracuse NY, Yuma Arizona, Stockton CA. See J. Tyburczy, R. Sommer, "Farmers' markets are good for downtown," California Agriculture, May-June, 1983, pp 30-32.


viiApproximately 31% of Central Market customers live in the western section of the City and township; only about 17% live in the entire southeast sector of the metro area (comprising the 17602 zip code). About 29% of Central Market shoppers reside in the County, not including the City. The customer "intercept surveys" conducted by The Food Trust at Central Market in the winter 2004-2005 further quantify the demographic profile of Central Market shoppers. Quoting the report, "The typical market shopper is 49 years of age, female, white, and lives and works in or near the city of Lancaster with one other adult, and has a family income over $40,000." Core shoppers at Central Market (the 25% of customers who spent the most money each month) earn greater than $100,000 each year. Eighty-eight percent of Market customers are white, 7% African-American, and 2% Hispanic (Lancaster Central Market Master Plan, submitted by Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects, with The Food Trust et al., March 2005).

viiiSave-a-Lot, a subsidiary of the SuperValue chain, claims that it saves customers between 20% and 40% on their grocery purchases, compared to traditional supermarket prices.

ixVery large farms can be compromised for long-term sustainability; the vertically-integrated supply chain, of which they are a part, means their ability to stay competitive is a function of their ability to remain the lowest cost supplier of an undifferentiated commodity. Smaller to mid-size farms do better insofar as they are able to provide the market with a unique and superior value in terms of product quality, special features or after-sales service. See See also Willis L. Peterson, "Are large farms more efficient?" Staff Paper Series, Dept. of Applied Economics, College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences, University of Minnesota, January 1977.

xAs of March 2005, one other growers has now leased a stand at Market.

xiCentral Market customer surveys indicated that habitual Market shoppers also regularly use Giant Foods and Weis supermarkets as food sources.

xiiModels and case studies for such assessments can be found in K. Pothukuchi, et al., What’s Cooking in Your Food System? A Guide to Community Food Assessment, ed. K. Siedenberg, K. Pothukuchi, Community Food Security Coalition, 2002.

xiiiIndeed, in the 1999 study "Barriers and Opportunities for Direct Marketing in the Philadelphia Region," prepared by the Farmers’ Market Trust and RISA (Regional Infrastructure for Sustaining Agriculture), Lancaster County is specifically identified as the most significant productive agricultural community within easy reach of the Philadelphia market (p. 12).

xivThe inability of Central Market to capitalize on the renown of Lancaster County produce is more than ironic; it borders on the perverse, working in the long-term against Market’s image, its functional importance in the regional economy, and undermining the ability of Lancaster residents to directly access Lancaster-grown foods.

xvSee for example, S. Bradbard et al., Understanding the Food Choices of Low Income Families. Summary of Findings, submitted to the USDA (Food and Consumer Service) by Lisboa Associates.

xviWilliam Novak, "Public Economy and the Well-ordered Market: Law and Economic Regulation in 19th-century America," Law & Social Inquiry: Journal of the American Bar Association, 10 (Winter 1993): 1-32.

xviiLancaster Central Market Master Plan, submitted by Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects, with The Food Trust et al., March 2005, pp. 12 and further.