Food accessibility in southern Arizona: Mapping the growth, trajectory, and market base of Tucson farmers' markets

Melanie Wallendorf, Ph.D. Soldwedel Professor of Marketing and Professor of Sociology, University of Arizona Eller College of Management
Matthew Godfrey, Ph.D. Candidate, Doctoral Student in Marketing, University of Arizona College of Management

Farmers’ markets have grown recently in both size and number across the United States and in the Tucson Urban Area (TUA). Farmers’ markets are sites where fresh, local produce is sold direct to consumers by farmer vendors. Their history in Tucson dates to 1919 when the first public market opened with its trucks and wagons where farmers sold their farm-grown produce. Then, after an absence of at least four decades, Tucson’s first contemporary farmers’ market opened in the downtown area in 1985. During the 2015 and 2016 seasons, twenty farmers’ markets operated within the TUA, mirroring the rapid growth of farmers’ markets nationally (USDA 2016). 

The following map illustrates the location of farmers markets in relation to select variables by census tract such as the percent of households with children, poverty rate, percent of households without a vehicle and the proportion Hispanic. Each step on the slider represents markets in operation during that analysis period. Underlying tract level data by step are from the 1990, and 2000 census, respectively. The 2005-2014 and the 2015-2016 analysis periods both utilize ACS 5 Year Estimates (2010-2014). Use the time slider and check boxes to update the map display. Click on a census tract or farmers market for more information.

Exhibit 1. Interactive map of farmers’ market locations and socio-economic data by Census Tract.

1984 to 1994 1995 to 2004 2005 to 2014 Currently Operating (2015-2016)

Update Census Tract map display by:

 Tract Population
 Density (Persons/Mile^2)
 Median Income
 Dist. to Nearest Market (Miles)
 % of households with Children
 Poverty rate
 % of households with no vehicle
 % Hispanic
Farmers Market
Source: Wallendorf, M. and Godfrey, M. (2016)


This white paper considers whether the recent business growth of farmers’ markets has unfolded in ways that improve food access for Tucson’s residents. First, we find that overall accessibility to farmers’ markets has steadily increased over the past thirty years. Nearly one-quarter of the TUA’s population currently lives within one mile of a farmers’ market, while just 6% of the population lived as close only thirty years previously. 

However, geospatial analysis also clearly indicates that access to the locally-grown fresh fruits and vegetables sold at farmers’ markets has not increased evenly across all demographic groups in the TUA. Tucson farmers’ markets tend to locate in areas with relatively low rates of poverty and low proportions of Hispanic and Latino residents. Areas such as Tucson’s south side, for example, have remained underserved by farmers’ markets. The underserved areas have higher proportions of children and households without access to a vehicle, making easy access to fresh produce an even more critical concern.  

The farmers’ markets operated by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona are an exception to this pattern. Over the past twenty years, the Community Food Bank has opened six farmers’ markets, three of which remain in operation today.  These markets are unique in the TUA in that they are located in neighborhoods where poverty rates are relatively high and Hispanic/Latino residents predominate. Additionally, geospatial analysis demonstrates that the farmers’ markets operated by the Community Food Bank fill important gaps in food access by locating within or near food deserts identified by previous MAP-funded research (Tong, Buechler, and Bao 2016). Food deserts are areas in which no chain supermarkets or independent stores selling food are located. 

This analysis finds that over time, many farmers’ markets locations are temporary and semi-transient. This impermanence, readily apparent in this longitudinal analysis, may actually contribute to increased food insecurity by initially providing a promise of increased access that vanishes when a particular market location closes a few seasons later. Moreover, most farmers’ markets are only open one day per week, and one Community Food Bank market is only open for six months of the year. These forms of temporal and spatial impermanence pose a constraint on the ability of farmers’ markets to improve access to fresh, locally grown produce. 

Yet, this analysis finds that farmers’ markets also serve important functions beyond facilitating food access. Farmers’ markets also connect people to each other in ways that form more cohesive communities. Through eighteen months of ethnographic research, this analysis identifies four sets of shopping practices that various customers utilize at Tucson’s farmers’ markets, each with a different focus and orientation. 

The first prototypical practice, Ideological Acquisition, is used by consumers for whom ethical and/or environmentally sustainable food acquisition is a critical moral choice tied closely to their lifestyles and identities. The second prototypical practice, Pragmatic Provisioning, utilizes the farmers’ market as one of several venues from which to acquire the best value in food at the lowest cost. The third prototypical practice, Recreational Shopping, involves attending the market as a leisure activity that provides entertainment and an escape from routine daily life. Fourth, Community Networking practices employ the market to reinforce relationships with others who consumers regard as like-minded individuals with whom they also interact at other third place locations.

The human population and retail composition of the area surrounding a farmers’ market has a strong impact on the ability of that market to attract consumers utilizing various of these prototypical practices. This analysis indicates that based on their co-location with other retail outlets, the sites of most of Tucson’s current farmers’ markets are best suited to facilitating the practices of recreational shopping and community networking. Future farmers’ market growth in the TUA has the possibility of potentially benefitting both consumers and producers of food if this growth unfolds in ways that provide better access for Tucson’s vulnerable populations.

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