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Alternative Food Projects, Localization and Neoliberal Urban Development

Farmers’ Markets in Southern California
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli et Fernando J. Bosco


Des mouvements alternatifs d’alimentation ont émergé ces dernières années en réponse à l’insatisfaction croissante envers le système agro-alimentaire industriel mondialisé. Les chercheurs et les activistes ont plus particulièrement encouragé la relocalisation des systèmes alimentaires comme un moyen de favoriser des objectifs tels que la santé, la justice ou encore le développement durable. Bien qu’un grand nombre de chercheurs considèrent les initiatives alimentaires réduisant les chaînes d’approvisionnement, tels que les marchés de producteurs et les jardins communautaires, comme une forme de résistance contre les pressions capitalistes qui grèvent le système alimentaire, d’autres montrent que celles-ci sont de plus en plus populaires parmi les habitants urbains blancs et à haut revenus. Cette contradiction conduit à interroger l’idée selon laquelle un système alimentaire localisé favorise la démocratie et la justice.
Cet article s’appuie sur de récentes recherches en géographie relatives aux notions d’échelle et de gouvernance urbaine afin d’analyser le développement des pratiques alimentaires locales en Californie urbaine du sud, et son rôle dans la résistance aux politiques urbaines néolibérales ou dans leur reproduction de. Nous nous concentrons sur les marchés de producteurs, qui connaissent une croissance exponentielle. Après avoir étudié leur répartition géographique dans le comté de San Diego, nous approfondissons notre analyse sur trois marchés qui illustrent chacun de manière spécifique les relations ambivalentes entre l’urbanisme néolibéral et les systèmes alimentaires dits « alternatifs ». En conceptualisant l’échelle locale comme une stratégie, nous portons une attention particulière aux motivations selon lesquelles les acteurs institutionnels participent aux initiatives alimentaires alternatives et à leur rôle dans la reproduction de divisions sociales de l’espace urbain selon les groupes ethniques et les classes sociales. Notre recherche utilise des données quantitatives et qualitatives, y compris des entretiens avec des acteurs clés dans chaque quartier, afin de décrire l’évolution géographique des pratiques alimentaires « alternatives » et de montrer les contradictions auxquelles les acteurs locaux sont confrontés dans la création d’une ville plus juste.

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Acknowledgement: Research for this article was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Geography and Spatial Sciences Program and Anthropology Program, Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, award number 1155844. The authors would like to thank Emanuel Delgado, Joshua Truelson and Riki Aihara for their research assistance for this project.

1. Introduction

1Over the past decade, industrial food has become a popular symbol of “everything that has gone wrong” with our society and a rallying theme in support of alternative ways of producing and consuming (Pollan 2009; Kingsolver 2007; Waters 2006; Schlosser 2001). Far from being homogenous and centralized, alternative food movements have developed around several key issues, including health, environment, quality, culture and social justice, which are arguably threatened by the global, industrial and corporate food system. Most initiatives call for a down-scaling and re-localization of the food system, assuming that shorter supply chains will lead to more transparent, accountable, equitable and/or meaningful relationships between suppliers and consumers (Alkon and Agyeman 2011; Feenstra 1997; Gottlieb and Joshi 2010; Lyson 2004; Winne 2009; Ackerman-Leist 2013). As the concepts of local and alternative become conflated, localism is advocated as a binary alternative to the contemporary global food system and a promising way to address hunger and obesity, reduce our ecological footprint, promote just economies, and preserve regional cultures (Dupuis and Goodman 2005; Hinrichs 2003). In that context, farmers’ markets, public gardens, food box schemes and farm-to-school programs have grown in numbers and popularity. Many of these now take place in cities, where people – especially low-income and minority residents – have been alienated from the production of food and experience firsthand the impacts of unevenly toxic food landscapes. Food has become an increasingly visible yet poorly understood element of urban politics, involving a wide range of actors, including grassroots community organizations, state-sponsored food policy councils, and private urban developers, in “alternative” food projects.

2A broad scholarship describes these localized/alternative food practices as forms of resistance against the capitalist pressures that strain the food system (Kloppenburg, Lezberg, DeMaster Stevenson and Hendrickson 2000; Norberg-Hodge, Merrifield, and Gorelick, 2002; Hendrickson and Heffernan 2002; Heynen 2009). Similarly, the urban sites where these activities take place, especially community gardens, have also been conceptualized as “spaces of resistance” or “counter-spaces” to the extent that they represent a collective spatial strategy to redistribute value away from the global corporate food system into disenfranchised communities (Rinaldo 2002; Schmelzkopf 2002; Staeheli, Mitchell, Gibson 2002; Eizenberg 2012, 2013). However, this perspective sits uncomfortably with the budding recognition that most of these practices have become increasingly popular among affluent and white urban residents (Slocum 2007; Guthman 2008, 2011), with gardening, shopping, and cooking “local” being re-imagined as a creative and therapeutic activity (Johnston and Baumann 2009). These contradictions raise concerns regarding the alternative nature of local urban food initiatives. Has the “local” been reified and appropriated by urban developers and cultural elites, in a similar way as other counter-cultural phenomena and progressive notions have been co-opted by the mainstream?

3This article explores the diverse meanings of alternative food projects in San Diego, focusing specifically on farmers’ markets, which have rapidly become ubiquitous and represent one of the most public elements of the contemporary food movement in the United States. We pay particular attention to the agendas of local state and nonprofit agencies in supporting this sort of alternative food initiatives and their role in reshaping cities along the lines of race and class. Our analysis builds on recent research in political geography that engages with critical theories of scale to conceptualize the “local” as a strategy shaped by specific agendas and actors (Born and Purcell 2006; Brenner 2003; MacLeod and Goodwin 1999). This approach allows us to investigate the different purposes and uneven deployment of local food initiatives, such as farmers’ markets in the San Diego region, by focusing on the inclusion and participation of disenfranchised groups and neighborhoods in the local food agenda.

4San Diego is a useful site to study these issues given its geographic location, political-economic history and demographic transformation. The region is home to over three million people and a major tourist destination, with tourism generating a significant amount of tax revenue and receiving much attention from city and county governments. As a result, the needs of local residents, especially those at the bottom of the hour-glass income distribution characteristic of service-oriented economies, have been arguably neglected. The city government’s focus on economic development through public-private partnerships in downtown hotels, convention centers and public facilities, has left most neighborhoods on their own, leading to an intense competition for resources and a fragmented, volatile and uneven urban landscape (Erie, Kogan and MacKenzie 2010; Chapin 2002; Davis, Mayhew and Miller 2003; Hogan 2003). In that context, defensive localism from largely white and affluent upscale urban and gated suburban communities co-exists with progressive efforts, especially in places where immigrants, refugees and people of color have settled. This tension is particularly acute in the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods and their surrounding communities (Mitchell and Staeheli 2006). Increasingly, food has become part of these multiple agendas: attracting tourists, marking status, feeding families, promoting health, providing jobs, preserving nature, etc. Farmers’ markets have become one of the most visible elements of local food politics, growing from 5 in 1988 to 57 today. Although decidedly portrayed as “alternative”, little is known about the actors, motives and agendas underlying the recent growth of farmers’ markets in urban San Diego and other large cities.

5In the next section, we review literature that questions “the local” as a fixed and given ontological category and investigate its social construction. We intersect critical research on alternative food practices with recent geographic theories of scale and their applications in urban governance. We explore these arguments through an analysis of farmers’ markets in San Diego. After investigating their geographic distribution, we zoom in onto three markets that uniquely illustrate the ambivalent relationships between neoliberal urbanism and alternative food systems. We analyze the changing landscape of alternative food practices and the contradictions local groups face in creating a more just city and pay particular attention to the role of the local state and community organizations in shaping alternative food initiatives and their reach into low-income communities of color.

2. Scale in the Local Food Movement: The Local as a Strategy

6Farmers’ markets have become a central feature of efforts to re-localize the food system, with their number more than doubling between 2004 and 2013 (USDA-AMS 2013). Many urban neighborhoods across the United States now boast weekly farmers’ markets, which according to the recent Proclamation of National Farmers’ Market Week by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “support the sustainability of family farms, revitalize communities, and provide opportunities for farmers and consumers to interact” (USDA 2013). As the so-called food movement continues to garner attention and arguments for eating local grow increasingly popular, alternative and local food practices have become mainstream. Like “organic” (Guthman 2004), “alternative” and “local” now carry a much more superficial, standardized and predictable meaning.

7An uncritical embrace of localism hides and leaves untouched the power inequalities that have led activists to advocate and develop locally-based alternative food networks in the first place. In many cases, breakfast programs, community gardens, and farmers’ markets were radical programs put in place by activists to address the impacts of racism, social exclusion and economic inequality in their communities (Alkon and Norgaard 2009; Eizenberg 2013; Heynen 2009, 2010; Lyson 2004). Yet, while there remains much difference between the motives, agendas and configurations of various local food initiatives, re-localization efforts are increasingly defined and deployed by urban elites and are emerging as a new and pointed way in which cities are spatially structured and differentiated, both discursively and materially. The popularity and replication of similar local food initiatives in very different contexts across the United States and other parts of the world seem to suggest the development of a homogenized and institutionalized urban food policy, with an increasingly narrow range of approaches and actors defining what “local” means.

8The seemingly narrowing focus of the local food movement on ethical consumption (Bryant and Goodman 2004; Seyfang 2006) puts into question its revolutionary claims to be inclusive, democratic and just, with particular concerns regarding race and class relations. For instance, scholars have shown that color-blindness and universalism in alternative food practices posits white and middle-class values about “eating-right” as the norm and reproduce white privilege (Alkon and McCullen 2011; Dupuis and Goodman 2005; Feagan 2007; Guthman 2008; Slocum 2007). Farmers’ markets, in this perspective, are conceptualized as white spaces, not just because of the assemblage of white bodies but also because of the whiteness embodied in the practices they enable. Such spaces reinforce the material and emotional barriers that people of color face in accessing “better” foods. Building upon this idea of white or privileged spaces, some researchers have linked alternative and local food initiatives to gentrification and place branding. Farmers’ markets, community gardens, street fairs, restaurants and gourmet food trucks have (inadvertently or purposely) become parts of a rather elitist cultural economy which devalues and/or appropriates the food practices and bodies of low-income and minority residents and thereby contributes to their displacement both culturally and materially (Zukin 2008; Joassart-Marcelli and Porcella 2012; Pudup 2007; Quastel 2009; Kern 2012). These studies all point to the potential of localized food systems to (re)produce spatialized differences along the lines of race and class. A similar process of appropriation seem to be underway with other countercultural forms, such as rap, yoga, surfing, ethnic cuisine, recycling, and ecotourism, which have been commodified as distinctive, cosmopolitan, pure, and/or responsible, and turned into profit-making initiatives that ultimately excludes most of those originally involved.

9Recent geographic research on urban governance suggests that the emphasis on the local is part of a larger neoliberal process of devolution and localization of decision-making that has shifted political and economic responsibilities onto local governments, communities and individuals (Delaney and Leitner 1997; MacLeod and Goodwin 1999). Under contemporary neoliberalism, cities are increasingly governed according to an entrepreneurial model (Peck and Tickell 2002; Hall and Hubbard 1996) in which neighborhoods are pitted against each other in a competition for resources that entails “speculative construction of place” (Harvey 1989, p. 8). As the welfare state withdrew from many of its previous functions, beginning in the 1970s, local government agencies, grassroots community-based organizations, chapters of national and international nonprofits and public-private partnerships have been called upon to fill the void (Jessop 2002; Joassart-Marcelli 2012; Wolch 1990). In the United States localization has historically been advocated as an effective way to meet people’s needs both on the Left and on the Right. While the former saw it as a path towards a more radical and inclusive politics that could empower marginalized groups, the latter understood localization as a way to foster community responsibility and promote efficient solutions tailored to local needs. Yet, there is now an extensive literature showing that this process has resulted in extremely uneven urban landscapes (Brenner and Theodore 2002; Hackworth 2007; Smith 2002; Harvey 1996).

10Ironically, the alternative food movement, by espousing “everything local”, has bought into the sort of market-based neoliberal ideology it often claims to reject (Allen 1999; Alkon and MacCullen 2011; Dupuis and Goodman 2005). Not only does the movement increasingly rest on the idea that individuals can change the world through consumption choices (Bryant and Goodman 2004; Hinrichs and Allen 2008; Lockie 2002), it also embraces assumptions regarding the superiority of local and non-governmental actors (Feenstra 1997; Allen 1999). Yet, as Born and Purcell (2006) argue, there is nothing inherently good about the local scale – a common assumption they call the “local trap”. While the localization of food production and consumption can lead to fresher, healthier, and more sustainable and just food (La Trobe and Acott 2000; Feenstra 1997), it can also generate the opposite. Eating local food could very well lend support to large-scale corporate farms, the exploitation of farm labor, and ecologically damaging growing practices. Far from being progressive, local food initiatives can reflect “defensive localism” (Hinrichs 2000, Winter 2003, Holloway and Kneafsey 2000), “conservative parochialism” (Harvey 1996) and “bourgeois regionalism” (Jones and MacLeod 2004) to the extent that they adopt a protective and reactionary posture that prioritize economic prosperity and cultural homogeneity through an exclusionary and territorial politics. These motives appear to underlie geographic origin designation schemes, culinary heritage initiatives, and eat/buy local campaigns (Hinrichs and Allen 2008). As with most reactionary politics, the moral and economic superiority of the local become particularly poignant in times of crises, including food scares and national security threats linked to visions of endangered farmers.

11While so-called “alternative” local food initiatives may be less obviously shaped by this sort of reactionary attitude, instrumental values are nevertheless important as illustrated by the number of reports and articles highlighting the economic and social benefits of farmers’ markets to local communities (Brown and Miller 2008; Gillespie, Hilchey, Hinrichs and Feenstra 2007; Morales, Balkin and Persky 1995; McCarthy and Moon 2012; Payne 2002). In these accounts, the local – whether it is defined as the region, the community or the neighborhood – is seen as a homogeneous entity whose residents are assumed to benefit equally from local food projects that keep dollars in the community (Tasch 2010; Cortese 2011; Hewitt 2013; Shuman 2102; Ackerman-Leist 2013). Narratives of local entrepreneurship resonate with urban developers and public officials who are constantly seeking new ways to generate value by transforming urban landscapes and rebranding places (Harvey 1996). Paradoxically, in these arguments in favor of localism, the local becomes delocalized or divorced from its context to the extent that differences between neighborhoods and residents are erased by standardized approaches. In other words, the local is appropriated by actors whose interests are more likely to align with those of a capitalist industrial food system that operates across spatial scales than those of a grassroots food justice movement.

12Following Born and Purcell (2006), whose ideas are influenced by recent geographic theorizing about scale (Delaney and Leitner 1997, Marston 2000, Smith 2002, Brenner 2001), we find it useful to conceptualize the local as a project or strategy brought about by specific actors and agendas, with many possible outcomes. Instead of being a container or a “passive medium in which social action take place” (Jones and MacLeod 2004), the local – like any other scale – is socially, economically, politically, culturally and institutionally constructed. Therefore, as Born and Purcell (2006) argue, the important questions are not whether local food systems are good or bad, but how they come about and whom they empower. Answering these questions requires paying particular attention to the various actors of local food initiatives, including community-based organizations, nonprofits, schools, local government agencies, business leaders, and the media. Surprisingly little attention has been given to these institutional actors, their overlapping or contradictory goals, and differences in their resources and capacities to transform the local food environment. Instead, the majority of studies investigating the alternative nature of farmers’ markets or other local food programs focus on consumers’ (and to a lesser extent vendors’) attitudes and identities based on interviews and surveys (Smithers, Lamarche and Joseph 2008; Selfa, Jussaume and Winter 2008; Guthman 2008; Lockie 2002). While these studies shed light on the relationships between shoppers and farmers and their motives for participating in local food systems, they rarely explore the role of institutional actors in producing and shaping the local spaces where these activities take place.

13In an attempt to address Born and Purcell’s call for making the agendas of those empowered by localization the subject of critical enquiry (2006), this paper explores the growth of alternative food practices in urban southern California and the ways they resist, challenge and/or reproduce neoliberal urban development policies. Answers to these questions are contingent upon the political, economic and social relations which define the local and in which local food systems are therefore embedded. Of particular importance are the broader agenda of urban development and the various actors who shape it. Our goal here is not to reduce the multi-faceted local food movement to a single neoliberal project, but instead to highlight the contradictory politics of defining “local” as alternative and the dangers associated with the mainstreaming and homogenization of local food projects.

3. San Diego’s Farmers’ Markets: Serving Food Deserts or Affluent Markets?

14Despite the decline in farmland due to urbanization, farming remains an important and growing sector of the San Diego economy, with almost 7,000 farms in the county and approximately 5,000 operating on less than 10 acres of land (USDA 2012). These smaller operations are more likely to grow organic and diversified crops, while larger ones tend to specialize in the production of single crops of ornamentals, avocado or citrus. Only a small number of local farmers – less than 200 – sell their produce through farmers’ markets (Ellsworth and Feenstra 2010).

15In 2013, there were 57 farmers’ markets certified by San Diego County’s Agricultural Commissioner, up from only 5 in 1988 and 25 in 2007. The market certification process requires that a certain number of vendors be certified farmers, implying that they undergo regular inspections and only sell what they grow themselves or what other certified farmers have grown. This, however, does not guarantee that the product is grown organically or sustainably or that farm workers are fairly paid. Interestingly, the number of certified farmers in San Diego has not kept pace with the number of markets (Ellsworth and Feenstra 2010). Whether this reflects a lack of interest from local farmers or a cumbersome certification process, the result has been an increased competition between markets to attract and retain vendors, including farmers operating outside of San Diego. This also partly explains the growing presence of non-certified vendors, who sell non-food items or non-certifiable products such as processed and prepared food, especially in markets struggling to attract certified vendors with large produce selections.

16Farmers’ markets are not evenly distributed in the region and are primarily located in densely populated and relatively affluent coastal communities, as shown in Figure 1. According to 2010 Census data, the average poverty rate in census tracts where farmers’ markets are located is similar to the county average of 13 percent. This figure, however, hides a sharp distinction between the few markets that serve lower income urban areas (usually for a couple of hours on a given weekday) and the greater majority, which operates in wealthier coastal neighborhoods and run for 4 to 6 hour on Saturdays or Sundays. In fact, if we take out just the five markets that serve low-income populations through the Fresh Fund program described below, the poverty rate in farmers’ markets’ neighborhoods falls below the county average, as does the proportion of non-white residents, suggesting that markets serving low-income communities of color, where access to grocery stores tends to be limited, are “statistical outliers”.  

Figure1: San Diego County Farmers’ Market and Poverty Rate*

Figure1: San Diego County Farmers’ Market and Poverty Rate*

* Percent of individuals in households with income below official poverty threshold, by census tract.
Source: 2010 US Census of Population and Housing and 2013 San Diego County Agricultural Commissioner. Map created by Emanuel Delgado.

17Recently created farmers’ markets best illustrate the contradictions in the aims of market advocates and managers and the variety of actors involved in shaping cities through the local food system. For instance, in the past five years, a number of farmers’ markets were started in low-income communities, such as City Heights, El Cajon, Southeastern San Diego, Barrio Logan, Imperial Beach and Santee. In many cases, these markets were brought together by the efforts of neighborhood-based organizations. At the same time, new markets also emerged in wealthier neighborhoods such as Mission Hills and Little Italy, often under the umbrella of real estate development interests. Coastal towns like La Jolla, Pacific Beach, Carlsbad and Solana Beach have been home to farmers’ markets for over a decade and now have a more established institutional structure in place. In contrast, newer markets are often struggling to survive and continue to redefine their approach by bringing in new players. Surprisingly, rural areas, where most farms are located, do not have many regular farmers’ markets or direct sale points, underscoring the urban nature of such retail activities in San Diego.

18Farmers’ markets are typically run by nonprofit organizations. However, a variety of organizational forms fall under the “not-for-profit” category, leading to much debate regarding the validity of such a term in describing some of the local actors. In recent years, the management of farmers’ markets has become increasingly centralized and commercialized, with a few organizations, including for-profits, managing up to five markets in the county. In fact, among the fifty-seven certified markets, twenty-eight (or approximately half) were managed by people and organizations involved in multiple markets. Many of these larger organizations engage in expensive advertising and public relations campaigns, collaborating with local business associations to gain support for their markets, which in turn are used to promote neighborhood stores, restaurants and real estate—often through music performances, art walks, food demonstrations and other community celebrations hosted at the markets. The official names of San Diego County farmers’ markets, which include terms like “Faire”, “Art Fair”, “Food Court”, “Specialties”, “Open Air Bazaar” and “Night Out”, suggest an emphasis on entertainment and place-based consumerism or what Harvey (1989) calls “speculative construction of place.”

19Like most nonprofits, organizations managing farmers’ markets depend on state assistance, including support from city governments, county agencies and state programs – an aspect rarely acknowledged. The city primarily provides assistance regarding street closing, traffic and safety, which is critical in densely populated urban areas. In many cases, the land where markets take place is publically owned and is made available at no cost or for a minimal fee. County and state governments have been involved in public health campaigns and initiatives to promote the consumption of fresh produce through farmers’ markets. For instance, in San Diego, the Fresh Fund program was created to match (up to twenty dollars per month) residents’ use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or formerly Food Stamps), Women Infant and Children (WIC), Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Yet, only five markets participate in the program and less than one fifth currently accept EBT – the Electronic Benefit Transfer card that allows people to redeem government benefits electronically – suggesting that food security and affordability is not a priority at most markets.

20The lack of visibility of local governments in supporting farmers’ markets stems from a conservative slant in San Diego politics that translates into deep distrust of state-run programs. A comment posted online in response to a local public radio report on farmers’ markets reflects this desire “that the city/state keep their fat little grubby hands out of [local farmers’ markets] as much as possible” (KPBS 2013). This general distrust of government transpired in more subtle ways in the recent creation of the San Diego Food System Alliance (SDFSA), which was established independently from local governments to plan and evaluate San Diego’s local food system and has no public mandate. The organization’s charter, signed in September 2013, clearly identifies eligible members, including representatives of production, labor, food security, health, processing, and other sectors, with government listed last. Reports of discussions leading to the creation of SDFSA emphasize a general consensus – among those invited at the table – “that an independent regional food system alliance would be better suited [to ensure strategic direction, alignment and coordination of food-system initiatives] than a government-sponsored food policy council” (Live Well San Diego, 2013, 11). Food Policy Councils (FPC) are often mandated and run by city or regional governments in collaboration with community stakeholders (Fox 2010; Harper, Shattuck, Holt-Giménez, Alkon and Lambrick 2009) – an approach deemed too restrictive and therefore rejected by SDFSA founding members. The charter also indicates a strong emphasis on consensus building in the selection of members, description of responsibilities, and decision-making process. Such emphasis on consensus and depolitization has led many observers to doubt the capacity of nonprofits to resist and challenge structural inequities (Joassart-Marcelli 2012; Kohl-Arenas 2011). It should come as no surprise that, in this context, local food initiatives are rarely described as “alternative” and have, for the most part, shed their social justice goals in favor of a mainstreamed and homogenized approach to food system development.

21Indeed, a common narrative runs through many publications and material posted online by SDFSA and affiliated regional organizations: one that emphasizes the growth of local production through an increase in demand for, access to, and sale of food produced in the county. Food security and “access for all” are mentioned as guiding principles, but these goals remain deliberately vague and no specific actions are delineated to achieve them. Messages about supporting local growers and producers are much more prominent, with “trickle down” arguments used to make claims about the benefits of farmers’ markets. According to Brian Beevers, manager of four farmers’ markets in San Diego, “supporting your local farmers trickles right back into the community so everybody is floating higher” (Brown 2013). This tendency to equate local food with economic benefits for the region is also apparent in Edible San Diego, the local edition of a self-described quarterly magazine “celebrating the abundance of local food, season by season”. Each issue is packed with advertising for farmers’ markets and gourmet eateries, articles praising farmers, chefs and educators, and elaborate recipes featuring seasonal foods. Similar ads and articles run in the other eighty regional “Edible” editions, including those focusing on the Piedmont, the Berkshires, San Francisco and Portland, globally reproducing a consumer-centered narrative of localism that reinforces nativism. Yet, several farmers’ markets and local food initiatives fail to appear in the sleek pages of the magazine and differ in many ways from the emerging mainstream model. In the next section, we turn our attention to three farmers’ markets that illustrate the variety of contexts and competing goals of institutional actors working towards the creation of a “local” food system.

4. A Tale of Three Farmers’ Markets

22The three farmers’ markets chosen for this section of our analysis are People’s Produce Market in Southeastern San Diego, Little Italy’s Mercato, and the City Heights Farmers’ Market (see Figure 2). Each of these relatively new markets operates in unique urban neighborhoods, distinguished by their relationships to the regional and global economy, demographic composition, histories, and civic institutional environments. They were purposely selected to illustrate how the local is constructed differently depending on the actors involved and their investment in networks that often span beyond the scale of the farmers’ market neighborhood and the regional food system. In addition, the recent establishment of these three markets made it easier to access information regarding the key actors involved and their strategies.

Figure 2: Study Farmers’ Markets and Poverty Rate*, Central San Diego

Figure 2: Study Farmers’ Markets and Poverty Rate*, Central San Diego

* Percent of individuals in households with income below official poverty threshold, by census tract.
Source: 2010 US Census of Population and Housing and 2013 San Diego County Farm Bureau. Map created by Emanuel Delgado.

23Our findings rest on mixed methods, including participant observation and systematic stand audits at the three farmers’ markets, as well as analyses of US Census data and media content. In addition, we benefit from insight gained through several years of studying economic development and food-security issues in these three communities. Although we present our findings for each place separately, we identify important and recurring themes throughout this section and return to these in the discussion that follows.

Little Italy: “foodies, meet farmers”

24Little Italy is a downtown San Diego neighborhood that emerged as an enclave of Italian fishing families at the end of the nineteenth century. Besides a fishing infrastructure, Italian immigrants developed other businesses and institutions to support their way of life. The Italian character of the neighborhood endured well into the 1950s and throughout the suburban migration that followed. At its peak, approximately 6,000 families lived in the neighborhood known at the time as Middletown or Harborside. The neighborhood’s economy declined in the 1960s, making room for light industry, warehouses and low-cost residential space. Yet, Italian families retained rental properties and businesses and maintained an interest in the neighborhood.

25  By the 1980s, urban redevelopment efforts began to gain momentum in San Diego and the neighborhood was designated as a planning district within the downtown redevelopment area. The Italian community began to capitalize in this renewed interest in the neighborhood, which was rebranded as Little Italy as a result of advocacy from the local business community. The newly created Little Italy Association (LIA) – a nonprofit neighborhood association comprised of business owners, property owners, and neighborhood residents – became a central actor in the gentrification of the neighborhood, working in partnership with the semi-independent Centre City Development Corporation (Chapin 2002). Over the next two decades, new businesses, such as Italian themed restaurants, cafes and stores, opened throughout the neighborhood, and the LIA began channeling redevelopment funds to infuse the local landscape with “Italian” features that would be inviting to local resident and tourists alike.

Table 1: Study Area* Socio-Economic Characteristics

Southeastern San Diego

Little Italy

City Heights

San Diego County







  Median Household Income





  People in Poverty (percent)





  Households with SNAP benefits in past 12 months (percent)





Public Transit User (percent)





Race/Ethnicity (percent)



























  Owner occupied units (percent)





  Structure with 2 or more units (percent)





Household Characteristics

  Average size





  Households with children (percent)





  Percent Married (with children)





Source: 2007-2011 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates
* Census Tracts of Farmers’ Market Location

26During the past decade, the residential population began to grow again, with wealthier and younger residents moving into newly built apartments and renovated lofts. Today, as shown in Table 1, residents of the census tract where the farmers’ market is located are primarily white, upper-middle class professionals without children. Many are young renters living alone or with one other person, and walking to work in one of the downtown neighborhoods. Although a few working class families remain in the neighborhood, the majority fit the stereotype of the urban creative class typically associated with urban gentrification (Florida 2004) – a very different population than two decades ago.

27The Little Italy farmers’ market – or Mercato – was created in 2008 to serve this population as well as the large number of tourists and suburban residents who visit downtown for entertainment. As its name indicates, the Mercato builds on the Italian theme, which has served the neighborhood well in defining itself as a “hip and historic urban neighborhood” – a registered trademark (Little Italy Association 2013). The market is sponsored by the LIA and managed by SD Weekly Markets, an expanding private company that hosts four other farmers’ markets in the region and has adopted a business model based on partnerships with local chefs, farmers, artisans and neighborhood developers under the motto of “foodies, meet farmers”. Real estate agents have capitalized on the market and supported it through their representation on the board of the LIA. Indeed, the farmers’ market – a symbol of the trendy and upscale urban character of the neighborhood – is mentioned in most real estate advertisements.

28Descriptions posted on the market’s website and numerous interviews given by its manager to the local press suggest that the primary goal of the market is to benefit restaurants and other locally-based businesses, with the promotion of “a sustainable and healthy environment for San Diego” as an underlying but secondary marketing theme. In line with a narrative centered on business opportunities, the manager has described the market as “a destination market […] included in ‘Top 10 Things To Do in San Diego’”(Russo 2013), “fertile ground for new businesses” (Mannes 2010) and “a big draw [...] for restaurant chefs who want top notch ingredients” (Dipping 2010). There is no pretense of addressing food security or advocating for food justice. Issues of equity are practically never mentioned.

29These business aims are reflected in the atmosphere of the market, the demographics of visitors, and the characteristics of participating vendors and products sold. While the Mercato boasts more than 140 vendors, less than 30 are certified farmers. The remaining vendors sell “artisan” foods (e.g., olives, sauces, breads, salt, spices and chocolate), prepared food and beverages, and specialty products (e.g., crafts, clothing, jewelry and tableware). In their weekly blog, market managers appeal to foodies and encourage shoppers to combine seasonal fresh produce with artisan foods and specialty ingredients sold at the market. For instance in September (SD Weekly Markets 2013), capitalizing on the Asian pear season, recipes were provided for “pear marmalade with goat cheese and crackers”, “glazed chicken skewers”, and “Asian pear pizza with blue cheese, caramelized onions and walnut pesto”. All recipes featured ingredients from specific market vendors, such as pears from Smit Farms, goat cheese from Sullivan’s Pond Farm, bread from Bread & Cie, chicken from Descanso Valley Ranch, and pesto made with Victory Farms basil. Our research indicates that several of these producers are not located in San Diego County, do not grow food organically, and are far from affordable to people with limited income. Unlike in other markets, there are no efforts made to encourage connections with community gardens or other grassroots food initiatives, which seem nonexistent in this neighborhood with the exception of a new garden at the public elementary school. Yet, all vendors listed on the market website are described as “local” reflecting how the term has been appropriated by the organization for economic purposes, which differ significantly from the goals typically attributed to the local food movement in the literature and set by the other two markets in our study.

City Heights: “The food is local, the story is global”

30City Heights was one of central San Diego’s first middle class suburbs, born in the nineteenth century out of speculative real estate development. It has been almost irreparably damaged by the construction of two freeways, municipal neglect and the development of large suburban retail spaces, which led to the exodus of businesses and wealthier local residents in the 1950s and 60s. As a result, City Heights’ single-family homes were transformed into apartment complexes for working class families. In the 1970s, in an effort to attract federal funds, it became one of the largest refugee resettlement areas in the United States. Today, as reflected in Table 1 above, City Heights is one of the poorest and most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in San Diego, having welcomed many successive waves of refugees from Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union, East Africa and the Middle East.

31The neighborhood distinguishes itself from other low-income neighborhoods in the region by the unusual and disproportionate level of attention it has received from various state and nonprofit actors interested in its revitalization, including a few large private foundations, which in the past two decades invested close to $ 400 million in the community through a series of partnerships with government agencies (Kayzar 2013). For instance, Price Charities helped finance the construction of housing, public facilities, and a retail center. More recently, the California Endowment, a large private health foundation, selected City Heights has one of fourteen low-income and minority neighborhoods in California where to build capacity and pilot new programs to create “healthy communities”, including land use and food access initiatives. This has led to a flurry of reports, studies and grant applications from local organizations competing for funding. Organizations with a track record in the community, including the International Rescue Committee (IRC) – an international agency contracted by the federal government to provide refugee resettlement service in City Heights and other communities throughout the United States, have been empowered by these recent development and have become important regional, state and national player in the local food movement.

32The IRC created the City Heights Farmers’ Market in August 2008 with two main goals. First, it aimed to provide local residents, especially refugees, with access to fresh, affordable and culturally appropriate foods. Second, it saw the market as an outlet to distribute the produce grown by refugees involved in its community farm program. City Heights was the first market in San Diego to collaborate with the County Department of Health and Human Services to accept EBT and to pilot the matching program Fresh Fund, which matches public benefits with up to $ 20 per month in tokens to spend at the market. In the census tract where the farmers’ market takes place, poverty is high and almost a fourth of the population used SNAP at some point during the previous year (see Table 1), including refugees who unlike other immigrants are eligible for SNAP. The County Farm Bureau was also influential in helping start the market. Academics and local universities became enrolled in the local food project agenda by producing a number of studies, sometimes at funders’ request, to show the benefits of farmers’ markets in promoting food security and healthy lifestyles. While food justice has been part of the dominant narrative in City Heights, contrasting sharply with the goals of Little Italy’s Mercato, the primary intended beneficiaries were refugees and, indirectly, academics, foundation staff, and community organizers intent on showing the benefits of their efforts and maintaining future funding.

33The IRC maneuvered these partnerships effectively, establishing itself as a leader in urban agriculture and local food justice. In 2011, it even drew the attention of First Lady Michelle Obama, who launched her healthy eating campaign with a visit to New Roots Community Farm – a City Heights community garden that is run by the IRC and supplies produce at the farmers’ market – and featured the garden in her new book “American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America” (Obama 2012). The IRC also became a leader in the San Diego local food movement by organizing efforts to reform an expensive and cumbersome citywide permitting process for community gardens. It has now become the default public face of the food justice movement in San Diego and has received national media attention, including from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and NBC, as a model for local urban food systems. This surge of interest has no doubt been instrumental in helping the IRC expand its activities and launch its “New Roots” campaign, supporting new garden and farmers’ market projects in over 20 cities “to assist refugees setting down new roots in the US” (IRC 2013). Recently, the IRC took over another local farmers’ market in downtown El Cajon (a city east of San Diego), where a large Iraqi refugee population resides. From modest beginning, serving a low-income community believed to be uninterested in fresh food, the City Heights Farmers’ Market has become one of the most popular in the region (San Diego A List, 2013) and part of a national and international network of farmers’ markets and refugee service providers. These local-global connections are reflected in a recent IRC campaign ad, featured in Edible San Diego, claiming that “the food is local, [but] the story is global” (IRC, 2013).

34The aims of the IRC to assist refugees are visible at the City Heights Farmers’ Market. Dozens of different languages are spoken here, unique produce is displayed in colorful stands, and exotic sounds and aromas escape from all corners. One of the largest stands features produce from the IRC’s New Roots Community Farm, which is located less than a dozen city blocks away. Other stands sell honey, teas, and clothes. Ready-to-eat prepared food from Vietnam, Ethiopia, El Salvador and Mexico are also available. Some of the small food businesses have benefited from IRC microloans, a program set up to promote refugee entrepreneurship, and the recent California Homemade Food Bill, which since January 2013 allows individuals without access to a commercial or inspected kitchen to independently prepare and sell specific food products. The market also includes “community tables”, which are used sporadically by nonprofits and government agencies for educational and outreach activities.

35Shoppers are primarily local residents using EBT and enrolled in the Fresh Fund program. At the same time, given its central location and proximity to higher-income and gentrifying neighborhoods, the Saturday morning market, with its eclectic flair, has attracted young and educated shoppers in search of a more “authentic” experience. And while these new consumers are supporting the expansion of the market, they are also demanding a greater variety of upscale products and a different shopping experience, which threaten the affordability and inclusiveness of the market.

Southeastern San Diego: “The fight is never about the grapes or lettuce, it is always about the people”

36Southeastern San Diego is a relatively large area, comprised of several distinct neighborhoods such as Mount Hope, Mountain View, Southcrest, Encanto, and Paradise Hills. These idyllic names hide a similar history of economic decline, violence and political neglect. Black families who had historically been restricted by local discriminatory covenants from purchasing properties in many San Diego neighborhoods, built and bought homes in Southeastern San Diego starting in the late 1800s. As the San Diego black population increased in the early 1900s, due to migration from the South and enrollment of Black soldiers in the army, the neighborhood became the heart of the Black community (Madyun and Malone 1981). Mexican immigrants and subsequent generations also settled in the area and Latinos are well represented in Southeastern San Diego, especially in the western part closer to downtown. In the 1980s, owing in part to failed urban renewal initiatives, multi-family housing expanded, attracting more low-income residents, including a large Filipino community already associated with the close-by US Navy base (Castillo 1976). As in many inner-ring suburbs, low-income households continued to move into this relatively affordable area as wealthier residents migrated to exurbs. Today, as shown in Table 1, the area surrounding the farmers’ market is significantly more diverse and poorer than the rest of the county. Recently described as a “war zone” by a key local figure (Good 2012), it is often perceived as one of the most dangerous communities in San Diego, plagued by drugs, gang violence and other crimes. Yet, contrary to this stereotype, many adults work in low wage service jobs downtown, which do not pay enough to escape poverty and feed their families (Center on Policy Initiatives 2014).

37Unlike neighboring City Heights, Southeastern San Diego has undergone limited population growth and its urban development initiatives have received much less attention from large foundations, the media and academics. In fact, the 1987 community plan (still in effect today) intended for “citizens of these neighborhoods to become involved and establish revitalization teams” (City of San Diego Planning Division 1987), suggesting the adoption of a neoliberal approach to development in which state interventions decrease and responsibility shifts onto communities and local residents. The Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation (JCNI), created by the founder of giant engineering firm Jacobs, launched several initiatives, emphasizing the need to build capacity for change through community participation and ownership (Carr and Servon 2008). The JCNI has invested heavily in local infrastructure, including a shopping center, housing, and various community spaces. Today, community-based organizations’ interactions with the JCNI are increasingly tense, with the foundation acting as a sort of gate-keeper to community development projects by controlling access to the land and facilities they own.

38It is in this social, political, economic, and institutional context that the People’s Produce Farmers’ Market opened in November 2010 on a vacant lot owned by the JCNI, after several failed attempts by other groups in different locations. The Friday afternoon market was established and has been managed by Project New Village, a small local nonprofit, with the primary goal of redressing the deep structural inequalities that have historically disenfranchised southeastern San Diego, by increasing access to fresh and healthy food and providing economic opportunities to community residents (Cadelago 2010). Access is a critical issue in a neighborhood where many residents rely on public transit and have limited mobility (see Table 1). The neighborhood has often been described as a “food desert”, lacking access to fresh, healthy and affordable produce while at the same time being home to many fast food restaurants and convenience stores (Joassart-Marcelli, Bosco and Delgado 2014). Because it participates in the Fresh Fund program and accepts EBT, the market gives people an opportunity to purchase relatively affordable fruits and vegetables that tend to be unavailable in neighborhood stores.

39The emphasis on social justice is illustrated by a quote from Cesar Chavez on Project New Village’s home webpage: “the fight is never about the grapes or lettuce, it is always about the people.” Central to the mission of the farmers’ market is the creation of economic opportunities for residents, many of which have family and cultural roots in farming, but have long abandoned it for lack of revenue. By providing a sale point, the manager hopes to stimulate local farmers and encourage residents to grow food at home or in the organization’s community garden. As in City Heights, however, the promotion of the farmers’ market tends to problematize the local food environment by exaggerating differences between the products and values of market vendors and those of local stores owners. This self-deprecating strategy, which is often used by nonprofits working in low-income communities of color, may inadvertently hurt neighborhood businesses by reinforcing negative stereotypes.  

40One of the challenges of this market has been to attract vendors (Florido 2011). Given the growing number of farmers’ markets in the region, established farms prefer to attend larger markets in affluent neighborhoods, like Little Italy, where it is assumed that people are willing to pay a premium for local or organic produce (Florido 2010). As a result, there are only a few small produce stands, including one from New Roots Farm in City Heights. Other items sold include pies, jewelry, soaps, ornamental plants, pastries and prepared food, perhaps diluting the sought health impact but nevertheless creating new economic opportunities for businesses located almost entirely in Southeastern San Diego. Making the farmers’ market a regular shopping spot for local residents has also been challenging and has required real grassroots organizing from Project New Village, whose members have gone door-to-door to inform residents about the market.

41The People’s Produce Farmers’ Market has been instrumental in strengthening food advocacy in Southeastern San Diego and supporting a community grassroots movement – something almost entirely absent from the Little Italy Mercato. And although many local residents shy away from the market, a core and growing group of local residents meets there regularly to shop and mingle. The market provides an avenue for debating other issues relevant to this marginalized community. Following a traditional model of community organizing, various “politically-tinged” events are held at the market, including work-days and celebrations in honor of labor and civil rights activists Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer.

5. Discussion

42In the United States, farmers’ markets have become a central feature of the so-called local food movement. Increasingly popular in urban neighborhoods, they are often described as a source of fresh, healthy, tasty, sustainable and fair food, concepts which have become conflated with local food. In that conflation, the local has become antonymous of corporate, global and industrial. Yet, as Born and Purcell (2006) point out, there is nothing a priori good (or bad) about a localized food system. They argue that it is the actors involved and agendas empowered by such a system that determine whether it is just, democratic, or sustainable. The local therefore needs to be understood as a project that is carried forward by actors moved by specific aims.

43Our investigation challenges essentialist ideas of farmers’ markets as either playgrounds for foodies or radical grassroots interventions and highlight the variety of farmers’ markets in the region, emphasizing tensions and contradictions in their missions and activities. We do so by focusing on the key actors involved in the creation and management of three farmers’ markets in urban San Diego and the way they have shaped them into very different spaces characterized by a unique blend of vendors, products, consumers and visitors entangled into multiple social, political and economic relations. And, as we show, while these relations include and benefit certain groups, they also exclude other.

44The Little Italy Mercato, by reinforcing the image of a hip and historic urban neighborhood, has become instrumental in the gentrification of Little Italy, which continues to displace low-income people both culturally and materially. The local here is a project undertaken by urban developers and civic entrepreneurs in ways that align closely with recent accounts of neoliberal urban governance (Hall and Hubard 2006; Brenner 2003; Brenner and Theodore 2002, Jessop 2002; Smith 2002). City government agencies and the neighborhood business community, led by the Little Italy Association, have capitalized on the currency of local food to attract tourists and residents with significant purchasing dollars to Little Italy. The success of the market in meeting its economic goals owe to the resources afforded by the public private partnership put in place. In 2012, the City of San Diego Redevelopment Agency was dissolved by a new state law and replaced by Civic San Diego, a city-owned nonprofit agency with the mission of being “an entrepreneurial partner [to revitalize] targeted urban neighborhoods,” which also include City Heights and Southeastern San Diego (Civic San Diego 2103). This shift of responsibility to the nonprofit sector and the emphasis on public private partnerships raise concern regarding both the ability of low-income neighborhoods to engage in similar efforts and the shape and direction such efforts are likely to take.  

45In contrast to Little Italy, the City Heights farmers’ market was created with more inclusive goals of helping refugee farmers and families residing in the neighborhood. Over time, the international flare of the farmers’ market, the variety of fresh and prepared foods offered, the attention given by the press to the activities of the non-profit organizations connected to the market and gentrification trends in neighborhoods surrounding the market attracted new, mostly white and English speaking customers. In serving these new groups, however, the farmer’s market might have begun to neglect other low-income residents in the area for whom access to good quality, affordable and culturally appropriate food is still an issue. The City Heights Farmers’ Market tale is surprisingly similar to Zukin’s (2010) account of the transformation of the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY in the last decade where Latino street vendors began to attract foodies from different socio-economic and ethnic background, spurring urban transformation with global ramifications. Similarly, the local that the combined activities of different actors have created around the City Heights farmer’s market is a socio-spatial processes intrinsically linked to a place but not necessarily circumscribed to a locality (Bosco 2001). Applying the combined lessons of some strands of social network theory (e.g., Burt 1992) and relational understandings of spatiality (Massey 2010; Bosco 2013), the City Heights farmers’ market can be seen as a strategic node that bridges to other networks across territories and scales to support the mission and goals of non-profit organizations such as the IRC. The version of the local constructed around the City Heights farmers’ market, one that is simultaneously embedded and connected to other closer and distant "locals", does not necessarily guarantee achievement of a just, sustainable and inclusionary food landscape, though it certainly enables possibilities to help move it in that direction. At issue here, for both research and policy agendas, are questions as to how these local-global network connections generate both new inclusions and exclusions.

46Finally, the People’s Produce Market has provided valuable opportunities for local residents and strengthened bonds between food advocates and community activists. Yet, it has had difficulties attracting the very people it seeks to serve, raising concern about alienation of many residents, in a way that is not that different from the experience of the City Heights farmers’ market. For us, the Southeastern San Diego farmers’ market illustrates the struggles of “miniaturized forms of collective action” in the context of global space (Lustiger-Thaler 2000). Southeastern San Diego is a unique neighborhood, but it is also a sort of globalized ghetto space where new forms of urban social movements and community mobilizing and organizing are re-emerging around issues of food access and food justice. Even though this form of activism has some similarities to the urban social movements of several decades ago, it is also occurring in a new spatialized and re-energized local context where collective consumption needs, framed around discussions of food access and equity, have more political purchase than ever before. In Southeastern San Diego, the local is constructed as a space of exclusion – a food desert in the eyes of many of the activists involved in the operations of the farmers’ market. However, as Lustiger-Thaler (2000) argues, the very principle of belonging to an excluded space is a starting point for collective action and, in this case, for a new politics of local inclusion and community belonging reframed through food activism.

47Together, these examples draw attention to the importance of scale and networks in social movements – concepts that have until recently been ignored in understanding an alternative food movement in which the local has been taken for granted. Although farmers’ market have emerged as a logical phenomenon in a system of neoliberal urban governance that fosters localized entrepreneurial solutions to urban development, the diversity among markets in San Diego suggests that neoliberalism may manifest itself in multiple ways and produce unique forms of resistance alongside homogenized strategies of urban development. The three farmers’ markets studied here are described as local, yet the meaning of this term is contingent and contextual. The “localness” of each market is used to achieve different goals, shaped by a limited set of actors and embedded in a series of networks than span much beyond the local scale.

48Neoliberal urban governance has intensified the role of the local as a major scale where strategies of economic development are shaped and enacted. Cities and urban neighborhoods across the globe are increasingly engaged in territorial competition to attract entrepreneurs and capital, enrolling a wider range of activities and actors into place-branding efforts, as we have shown here through our study of farmers’ markets in San Diego. Organizations and projects that once were described as grassroots and radical are now reified into strategies to attract mobile capital. At the same times, new forms of resistance are emerging, bringing together unlikely actors. As an institutionally and geographically evolving process, neoliberal urbanism continue to require researchers’ attention, particularly in identifying its manifestation in the co-optation of “local” and “alternative” initiatives.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure1: San Diego County Farmers’ Market and Poverty Rate*
Légende * Percent of individuals in households with income below official poverty threshold, by census tract. Source: 2010 US Census of Population and Housing and 2013 San Diego County Agricultural Commissioner. Map created by Emanuel Delgado.
Fichier image/png, 107k
Titre Figure 2: Study Farmers’ Markets and Poverty Rate*, Central San Diego
Légende * Percent of individuals in households with income below official poverty threshold, by census tract. Source: 2010 US Census of Population and Housing and 2013 San Diego County Farm Bureau. Map created by Emanuel Delgado.
Fichier image/png, 96k
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Pascale Joassart-Marcelli et Fernando J. Bosco, « Alternative Food Projects, Localization and Neoliberal Urban Development »Métropoles [En ligne], 15 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2014, consulté le 25 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

Corresponding author: Associate Professor, Department of Geography, San Diego State University, 5500 Campanile Drive, San Diego, CA 92182. Phone: 619-594-0906.

Fernando J. Bosco

Professor of Geography, San Diego State University

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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