Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Researchers tend to portray food self-provisioning in high-income societies as a coping mechanism for the poor or a hobby for the well-off. They describe food charity as a regrettable band-aid. Vegetable gardens and neighborly sharing are considered remnants of precapitalist tradition. These are non-market food practices: producing food that is not for sale and distributing food in ways other than selling it. Recent scholarship challenges those standard understandings by showing (i) that non-market food practices remain prevalent in high-income countries, (ii) that people in diverse social groups engage in these practices, and (iii) that they articulate diverse reasons for doing so. In this dissertation, I investigate the persistent pervasiveness of non-market food practices in Vermont. To go beyond explanations that rely on individual motivation, I examine the roles these practices play in society.
First, I investigate the prevalence of non-market food practices. Several surveys with large, representative samples reveal that more than half of Vermont households grow, hunt, fish, or gather some of their own food. Respondents estimate that they acquire 14% of the food they consume through non-market means, on average. For reference, commercial local food makes up about the same portion of total consumption.
Then, drawing on the words of 94 non-market food practitioners I interviewed, I demonstrate that these practices serve functions that markets cannot. Interviewees attested that non-market distribution is special because it feeds the hungry, strengthens relationships, builds resilience, puts edible-but-unsellable food to use, and aligns with a desired future in which food is not for sale. Hunters, fishers, foragers, scavengers, and homesteaders said that these activities contribute to their long-run food security as a skills-based safety net. Self-provisioning allows them to eat from the landscape despite disruptions to their ability to access market food such as job loss, supply chain problems, or a global pandemic. Additional evidence from vegetable growers suggests that non-market settings liberate production from financial discipline, making space for work that is meaningful, playful, educational, and therapeutic. Non-market food practices mend holes in the social fabric torn by the commodification of everyday life.
Finally, I synthesize scholarly critiques of markets as institutions for organizing the production and distribution of food. Markets send food toward money rather than hunger. Producing for market compels farmers to prioritize financial viability over other values such as stewardship. Historically, people rarely if ever sell each other food until external authorities coerce them to do so through taxation, indebtedness, cutting off access to the means of subsistence, or extinguishing non-market institutions. Today, more humans than ever suffer from chronic undernourishment even as the scale of commercial agriculture pushes environmental pressures past critical thresholds of planetary sustainability. This research substantiates that alternatives to markets exist and have the potential to address their shortcomings.
Number of Pages
Bliss, Sam, "Non-Market Food Practices Do Things Markets Cannot: Why Vermonters Produce and Distribute Food That's Not For Sale" (2024). Graduate College Dissertations and Theses. 1791.