The Color of Food: A Critical Examination of Race in Natural-Grocers and Farmer’s Markets


Food scholars have found that some areas within the alternative food movement, such as farmer’s markets and natural-grocers, operate as exclusionary spaces that primarily serve privileged white shoppers. The rhetoric used, attitudes upheld and physical characteristics of these spaces ostracize non-white individuals, effectively making the high quality, organic and locally grown food inaccessible to them. This ethnographic study examines a natural grocer and farmer’s market in Boulder, CO, utilizing the usage of qualitative interviews, a secondary sample, participatory observation and discursive analysis.

Through these methods, similar results were found in conjunction with the previously completed literature on this topic. First off, this research argues that the natural-grocer and farmer’s market are overwhelmingly white spaces and are fraught with simultaneous conspicuous and inconspicuous modes of exclusion. With these characteristics in play, it is argued that the alternative food movement, in the form of farmer’s markets and natural-grocers, is inhibited from its true potential of serving diverse populations. Lastly, this study will attempt to offer up some ideas for improvements in these areas in hopes of turning the white spaces of many (not all) farmer’s markets and natural-grocers into locations that accurately depict and welcome the vibrant community working for them and surrounding them.

The Absence of Foreign Language

In whiteness theory, color-blindness is when the absence of racial identifiers in language is seen as non-racist. Alfalfa’s is inherently a color-blind institution because of its location in the city of Boulder, a predominately white and affluent community. However, the key word here is predominately because Boulder also has a large native non-white population. It is also an international tourist destination and home to thousands of foreign students. Due to the absence of foreign language at Alfalfa’s, some of these people are automatically unable to shop there or struggle their way through the process of translation. None of the items sold, or menus advertising the food at Alfalfa’s are bi-lingual. The only presence of another language is a decorative Chinese or Japanese symbol above the seafood and sushi section.

The absence of foreign languages transforms Alfalfa’s into a white space. The language used at Alfalfa’s makes white people perceive this landscape as normal and natural while non-whites could feel uncomfortable and unwelcome (McCullen 2001). When writing about alternative food institutions Guthman (2008) ascertains, “Few people of color attend these programs; many feel isolated, and excluded…not only because of the language employed but also in fear of challenging” (p.394). In the case of Alfalfa’s, the language employed is English and the idea of convincing an entire corporation to include bi-lingual items and signs is a monumental task, even for a white person. The complete absence of a foreign language at Alfalfa’s discourages and dissuades non-whites from shopping there, inherently defending the whiteness perpetuated there.

White Savior Imagery

Alfalfa’s is very heavily focused on providing local, sustainable, and organic products to their customers. With this mission of providing high quality foods, also comes a commitment to the environment. The institution is very much concerned with minimizing their carbon footprint, further placing this commitment onto their customers. Patrons of Alfalfa’s are encouraged to recycle, compost, re-use and only when absolutely necessary, throw something away. As customers walk to the trash bins to recycle, or compost they read a “Did You Know?” placard. The sign reads, “Did you know we diverted 4,105 food packets, 38,561 energy bar wrappers, 2,658 beauty care packages and over 13,230 bags from land fills?” This is no doubt good work, and promotes sustainability awareness, however it paints a white face over the alternative food movement; because majority of the employees and customers of Alfalfa’s are white, it creates a white savior image, attributing all the good work to white people.

The sign ignores the other persons involved in the process and points all the success to the white customers and employees privileged enough to shop there. There is no reference towards the waste management employees who are doing majority of the dirty work, if not all, transporting and processing the conveniently disposed of trash. Slocum (2007) perfectly describes the effect of this, “These well-intentioned food practices reveal both the transformative potential of progressive whiteness and its capacity to become exclusionary in spite of itself. Whiteness coheres precisely, therefore, in the act of ‘doing good’” (p. 520). The “Did You Know?” signage placed all around the store effectively disconnects the races, creating an unrealistic image of who is really responsible for sustainability practices, and ultimately, saving the earth.

Perpetuation of Whiteness

Looking further into the language used at Alfalfa’s, I found that whiteness is not only defended through rhetoric, but also prolonged. Alfalfa’s provides numerous local options for produce, and other products in their store. Each is labeled uniquely, informing the customer where it came from. In addition, scattered throughout the store (almost like a brainwashing technique) are signs that read, “Shop Local, Shop Alfalfa’s”. Language such as this is an example of the prolongation of whiteness because it creates what Alkon and McCullen call the “white farm imaginary”.

Customers of Alfalfa’s valorize the predominately white vendors who “grow their food”, rendering invisible the low-paid predominately non-white workers who do the bulk of the cultivation (Alkon and McCullen 2011). The “Shop Local, Shop Alfalfa’s” signage fetishizes the products, creating a white and ideal conceptualization of embeddedness (within a community and lifestyle of sustainable living) that seductively brings patrons back time and time again. Alkon and McCullen argue, “…The color of faces customers see at the market influences who they believe grows the food they buy, and in the case of our markets, confirms the customers’ notion that sustainable agriculture is done by white family farmers” (p.946). Similarly, employees and customers of Alfalfa’s hold romantic notions of what farmers and community members should look like that both defend and perpetuate an affluent habitus of whiteness.


The lack of color at alternative food sites constructs color-blind conceptualizations in the minds of white patrons and farmers. This in turn is acted upon using mechanisms of racism such as racist language (McCullen 2001; Guthman 2008). When examining a place like Alfalfa’s with a sociological imagination I also found this to be true. The signs, menus, and labels all maintained an unfortunate white mentality. The racist discourse paired with the complete lack of foreign language inadvertently excludes potential non-white customers.

Furthering the exclusion is the insider ambiance found at natural grocers. The attitudes attached to shopping sustainably, local and organic are inherently white. Valiente-Neighbours (2012) writes, “The unequivocal celebration of the local foodshed neglects a discussion about the power relations and social inequalities (such as racism or sexism) within the supposed “foodshed” or locality” (p. 533). In the case of Alfalfa’s, the “celebration” that Valiente-Neighbours brings to light is connected to the insider ambiance. The ambiance has a universal quality, in other words it is assumed to be widely shared and normal. This is precisely the ambiance’s ostracizing characteristic, othering whoever else does not fit into it; because Alfalfa’s is such a white space, the insider ambiance is therefore white, further gentrifying color to the fringe.

Additionally, whiteness theory gives a perspective in which to analyze the different aspects of white privilege at play in the alternative food movement.  McIntosh (1989) vividly depicts white privilege “as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and bank checks” (p. 1). Within that knapsack is not only the access to high-quality organic food, but also leisure time to enjoy shopping in a space overwhelmingly your own color, down to the words being read or spoken. To have such good food with such willing employees to serve you is a privilege. Alfalfa’s disproportionately benefits white people and provides pathways to block attempts to change it.

The mere completion of my participant observation and involvement in academic research is an item of white privilege. Along with that is the privilege to further the research, to continue asking questions. Whiteness studies and the alternative food movement create an incredibly interesting intersection. Racial studies of food are a crucial focal point in the flattening of the uneven road that is the alternative food movement. With that, I believe my study contributes some questions, or tools if you will, to help galvanize the construction. (1) What physical changes can be made to natural-grocers in order create a more encompassing environment, further creating a more inclusive ambiance? (2) With a better understanding of privilege, how would the interactions within natural grocers between whites and non-whites change? However, physical changes to the landscape will not completely solve the inequitable characteristics found within the alternative food movement. A social revolution is needed; a type of awareness that sweeps over the color-blind rhetoric and universal whiteness, adding color to the alternative food movement and exposing the truly vibrant communities surrounding the markets. Hopefully in the future, the veil overshadowing the inequitable alternative food business will be torn away, revealing the true structure and color of food.


Race, Class and Gender Differences in Deviant Behavior


Deviant behavior is characterized by departing from social norms and values. Each culture has a unique set of ethnics, and the thoughts and actions beyond this set of beliefs are considered deviant. Like the differences amongst these collections of values, so too does difference exist with respects to the individual and type of behavior. Social scientists have worked hard to understand these diversities, and through this hard work, patterns begin to develop. Some examples of these trends follow the differences in race, class and gender. By applying sociological theory to these three characteristics, this paper will attempt to expand on the commonalties and differences that are at play within these groups and how each one interacts with deviant behavior.



Most societies and cultures, if not all, have developed some form of social doctrine. Within this doctrine is a set of socially constructed rules. These rules, social in context, are dependent upon which culture they operate in and because of this, can vary quite dramatically between other external cultures and even internal subgroups. These rules help to maintain a relatively smooth way of life, without them, the social fabric begins to break down. The complete absence of a social doctrine is anarchy and chaos, but occasional inklings of rule breaking is what social scientists have deemed deviant behavior. Through observation and research, scientists have been able to identify patterns and trends that correlate to deviant behavior, such as race, class and gender. Within these specified categories, the research can show us who is committing deviant behavior and why.


Deviant Behavior

Before one can look at how deviance correlates with social characteristics like race, class and gender, they first must develop an understanding of the behavior itself. In general, deviance describes an action or behavior that violates social norms (Macionis and Gerber 2010). Deviance or deviant behavior (used interchangeably), can be a violation of a formally enacted rule or law. Crime is a perfect example and the one most notably researched. Deviance can also be a violation of a social norm.

There are two types of social norms, folkways and mores. Folkways are customs of daily life. They are mildly enforced social expectations such as saying hello and goodbye.  Failing to say goodbye might be socially awkward but it is not met with punishment. This is where a distinction exists from a more. Social mores come from the Latin word for “manner” or “custom”. Despite similar beginnings, it is different from a folkway in that it is a societal norm that is considered to have greater moral significance (Macionis and Gerber 2010). Mores are strictly held cultural beliefs and behaviors, so strict in fact, that some sort of punishment is often a result of rejecting social mores. In most cultures, committing murder is considered a more that strays far from social norms and is punishable by prison time, and sometimes death.

Between folkways and mores, societies are able to outline commonly held beliefs that act as an agent of social control. A deviant person is one who leaves societal rules behind and performs deviant behavior. The doctrine that the individual is breaking is important, but perhaps more interesting are the characteristics of the deviant person themselves. The first characteristic in conjunction with deviance and crime we will examine is race.


Racial Differences in Deviant Behavior

When looking at racial disparities in deviance and criminal behavior, the statistics can be quite shocking. There are obvious differences in the experiences of a Black individual compared to that of a Hispanic individual, and so on across the racial spectrum; because of these differences, scientists have begun to take a closer look.

In 2013, a Black individual was six times more likely than a non-Black person to commit murder, and 12 times more likely to murder someone of another race than to be murdered by someone in another race (Rubenstein 2016). In general, Asian populations have the lowest criminal rates, followed by Caucasians, and then Hispanics. The Black population has the highest criminal rates and occurrences of deviant behavior. This pattern holds true for almost all crime categories and age groups (Rubenstein 2016; Ulmer, Harris and Steffensmeier 2012).  These differences are so stark, that they cannot be ignored. So why do some scholars think they exist?

One way in which to examine racial differences in deviant behavior is to apply the Structural Disadvantage Framework. This framework assumes there to be embedded institutional factors that permeate into social life, providing privileged experiences for some and disadvantaged experiences for others. Unfortunately, this divide between privilege falls along racial boundaries. The Structural Disadvantage Framework seeks to explain these disparities by examining structural forces within a society as sources of disadvantage and consequently of deviant behavior. In their studies of gaps in disadvantage and crime between racial groups, Ulmer, Harris and Steffensmeier found significant heterogeneity in the White-Black, White-Hispanic, and Black-Hispanic gaps (2012). In other words, they found suggestive variety in the experience of underprivileged individuals and deviance amongst racial groupings. With higher amounts of advantage came lower levels of crime, while higher amounts of disadvantage translated into increased levels of crime. Along the same vein, they found that Black individuals have the highest homicide and violent crime rates, followed by Hispanics and then Caucasians (Ulmer, Harris, Steffenmeier 2012). These differences in crime rates correlated directly to key structural disparities between the groups.

The structural functions that the Structural Disadvantage theory looks at are the circumstances in which individuals and groups of people live. These circumstances can be chosen, however, most structural characteristics are worked into the architecture of an organized society. In their studies, Ulmer, Harris and Steffensmeier found Black and Hispanic poverty levels to be twice that of Caucasians (2012).  This strong presence of poverty often forces or encourages risky decision making, often resulting in increased deviant behavior and crime. For example, one individual might consider a criminal career to make money when they cannot secure a job. More research on the topic has found other sources of disadvantage that correlate with criminal behavior such as unemployment, educational inequality, residential segregation, social disorganization, and subcultural adaptations to disadvantage. These circumstances are often found in non-White racial neighborhoods and help to exacerbate the amount of deviance found within them. It is argued that the long legacy of racism and discrimination, stretching back to times of slavery and indentured servitude, is responsible for putting these people and places at a disadvantage from the start (Steffensmeier et al. 2010; Kubrin and Weitzer 2003).


Class Differences in Deviant Behavior

Very closely related to the ideas of structural disadvantage and race are criminological theories of class differences. Like race, scholars have spent quite a bit of time attempting to explain the relationship between social class and deviant behavior.

One classic explanation comes from American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) which he coined Strain Theory. Merton argues that the desire to achieve success is a cultural goal that is present across all social levels. However, the means to achieve such success are allocated in such a way that some groups are privileged while others are deprived. The discrepancy that deprived classes experience, between desire for success and attainment of success, leads to an increase in deviant behavior and crime (Merton 1957). In other words, lower socioeconomic classes experience a strain that more privileged classes do not experience, hindering them from the same opportunities and quality of life. It is at this point where Strain Theory and the Structural Disadvantage framework intersect— both acknowledging the macro level phenomena that control groups of people, pushing some into success while others into lives of deviance.

To the contrary, it is important to understand that crime and deviant behavior also exist within higher socioeconomic classes, however, the crime that exists within these realms can be much different.

The term ‘white-collar crime’ was popularized by another American sociologist by the name Edwin H. Sutherland (1906-1957). To get a better understanding, the FBI includes the following offenses among the white-collar definition: public corruption, money laundering, health care fraud, embezzlement, price-fixing, anti-trust violations etc. Sutherland argued that important sociological differences existed between these types of crime and more conventional crimes such as burglary or murder. In general, Sutherland ascertained that these differences lay across a class difference­­—conventional crimes being committed by lower socioeconomic class and white-collar crime by those in higher socioeconomic social classes (1940). Knowing what we know now about racial differences in deviance and poverty, it is safe to argue that conventional crimes of violence mainly pertain to non-White populations operating within disadvantaged social classes while examples of white-collar crime tend to be found within White communities not experiencing the same strain. Of course there are exceptions to the case, but it is important to understand the generalizable patterns that permeate into societies.


Gender Differences in Deviant Behavior

Another lens social scientists have used to examine the full scope of deviant behavior is with gender. In 2002, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 73% of all people arrested in 2002 for serious crimes were male.  Although this statistic is somewhat recent, it is a trend that has been observed for decades. So the question became, why is deviant behavior primarily a male phenomenon? One way in which to attempt to answer this question arises from Conflict Theory. In general, conflict theorists call to attention the unequal power within groups and societies. They are interested in focusing on processes of tension, inequality and conflict and how these items generate social phenomena, which in this case is deviant behavior.

Historically, women have been excluded from essential social processes and restricted to the home. In some cultures, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, their presence in public is unwelcome, resulting in less access to opportunities for criminal behavior (Carrabine et al. 2009; Rossi 1985). In addition, it his hypothesized that cultural norms attached to women, such as their subordinate position in some societies and submissive behavior, also eliminate occasions for deviant acts (Rossi 1985). Overall, these scholars argue it is the regulation of women—often by their over powered male counterparts—and the conflict that exists between them, that results in higher amounts of deviance for men than women. It is with this thinking that one scholar posited, “most crimes would remain unimaginable without men” (Collier 1998).

A second way to examine the relationship between deviant behavior and gender is to apply Gender Theory ways of thinking. In this mode of thought, researchers and scholars attempt to find out what it means to be a ‘man’. Gender theorists look at issues of power, dominance, aggressiveness, achievement, competition and status attainment. Through this, they argue that masculinities are always contested and never fixed. In other words, it is through avenues such as dominance and competition that men, more so than women, assert themselves. “Doing gender” in this way results in committing criminal activities—both conventional and white-collar— such as violence, rape and corporate crime (Carrabine et al. 2009).

Furthermore, gender theorists look at issues of self-control to deepen their understandings of the differences between genders, and their applications of deviant behavior. It has been argued that theorists of deviance overestimate the effect of opportunity on crime, or lack thereof, and do not shed enough light on the “substantial self-control differences between the sexes” (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990: 147).  On both sides of the gender binary, low self-control is significantly related to deviant behavior. For men, crime is ubiquitous amongst the population where self-control emerges as the catalyst for deviance. For women on the other hand, the act of deviant behavior is dependent on individuals with low self-control gaining access to illegal opportunities (Burton et al. 1998). Here we see a connection to the earlier ideas of gender and crime. Males have more agency to commit acts of deviance especially when compounded with low self-control, whereas females, despite levels of self-control, also need the access to opportunity in order to become deviants.  Conflict theorists and gender theorists intersect at this point, creating a more robust explanation for the correlation that exists between gender and deviant behavior.



Every culture has deviance and the deviant individuals that perform it This is inherent in the construction of social norms and a values. By doing so, a society creates the ‘other’—whether that be a person, thought or action— that operates outside the normal realm of society. Out there, there is a rejection of folkways and mores, and instead, an acceptance of the deviant way of doing things.

Race, class and gender are attached to this way of life and have been used to better understand deviant phenomena. There are distinct differences in the amount of crime throughout the racial spectrum. It is from institutional disadvantages—such as unemployment, educational inequality and social disorganization—coupled with long histories of racism and prejudice that this crime pervades and persuades its way into society (Kubrin and Weitzer 2003; Carrabine et al. 2009; Rossi 1985; Steffensmeier et al 2010). Similarly, these differences can be found amongst the social classes. Much like disadvantage, it is the strain in which lower socioeconomic classes live in that pushes them into lives of crime. In search of some form of success, individuals perform deviant behavior in order to survive (Merton 1957). On the other hand, individuals from higher social classes will commit white collar crimes, perhaps not for survival, but instead in pursuit of some warped conceptualization of success (Sutherland 1940). Nonetheless, deviance exists on all levels of social strata and will continue to do so.

Lastly, scholars of deviance pull in gender to draw connections to deviant behavior. Criminal behavior is largely a male phenomenon. Some posit that it is the sexist regulating of women, and the antithesis for men, that create gendered differences in crime levels (Carrabine et al. 2009; Rossi 1985). Other scholars point to actions of ‘doing gender’ and the cultural stereotypes attached to genders that separate males from females, such as men being aggressive and dominant while women remain submissive and passive (Carrabine et al. 2009). Combining the two sexes, some scholars point to low levels of self-control found in both females and males that contribute to criminal behavior (Burton et al. 1998). Perhaps the most helpful way to see the correlation between gender and deviant behavior is so combine all these perspectives, and to acknowledge the intersectionality of all of them.

Regardless of the lens that one applies to study deviant behavior, it is the curiosity that matters. By being interested and satisfying our curiosities, we work to more fully understand the cultures human beings exist within. This is good work, and needs to be accomplished. With it comes more robust outlooks and data that can one day hopefully help to correct some of the inequalities human societies experience.


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Gottfredson, Michael R. and Travis Hirschi. 1990. A General Theory of Crime. CA: Stanford University Press.

Kubrin, Charles E., and Ronald Weitzer. 2003. “New Directions in Social Disorganization Theory”. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. 40(4):374-402.

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