News and Articles

Rooting Our Communities in Farmers’ Markets

Image courtesy of The Stop
June 30, 2021

Rossen Lee (she/her) is a 2021 Social Connectedness Fellow working with The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto. She is a recent graduate from Ryerson University with a BASc. in Nutrition and Food as well as a certificate in Food Security Studies. Having spent her childhood as a settler in Hamilton, Ontario, Rossen is passionate about building communities, supporting marginalized populations, and researching urban food security. With her career, she hopes to build a more sustainable, affordable, and socially just Toronto for all. Guided by love and friendship, Rossen believes that human compassion and social resiliency can overcome anything.

After meticulous measuring and safety planning, The Stop Community Food Centre’s annual Farmers’ Market grand reopening on May 22nd seemed to only be at risk of rainy weather. 

That was until, at the stroke of midnight, a new amendment to Ontario regulation cut customer allowances in food markets from 50% to 25% of maximum capacity. 

That Saturday afternoon, organizers scrambled to inform the dozens of local vendors of the new changes, and made strides to keep both spirits and COVID-19 safety standards up. All while the line up of community members hoping to enter the market only grew larger, watching as 52 individuals were able to move slowly through the otherwise sparse outdoor market.  

Meanwhile, only one kilometre away, the Loblaws supermarket was allowing 100 patrons at a time to shop for produce, snacks, toiletries, and other household goods as the clouds began to roll in.[1]

The Stop Farmer’s Market throughout the day, Image courtesy of The Stop
The sun is shining but it is a heavily clouded sky. Both images depict rows of outdoor event tents where vendors are situated, all lined up next to each other. Market goers can be seen at stalls or on the main walkway, but it is relatively sparse.
The Stop Farmer’s Market throughout the day, Image courtesy of The Stop

 Farmers’ markets are a powerful hub for resources and gathering within communities. They grow local economies, foster community bonding, can increase fruit and vegetable consumption, provide fresh produce in food deserts, and some even become nationally recognized tourist destinations. At their core, farmers’ markets provide opportunities for local vendors to sell their goods against major corporate entities that have dominated the industry–especially during the pandemic. Finding the money, time, and infrastructure to operate a physical or digital storefront year-round can also prove to be difficult for these smaller vendors. For marginalized business owners, who may disproportionately face discrimination and barriers, organizing their own farmers’ markets have proved to be one step towards more equitable business practices in agriculture. In the case of The Yellowknife Farmers’ Market, inconsistent electricity and internet quality blocks the ability to use digital marketing and sales completely, making physical farmers’ markets the only viable way to sell their goods. 

Farmers’ markets provide an opportunity for community members to gather together and enjoy the outdoors. These events serve as things to look forward to, rituals of tradition, and markers of changing seasons. The socialization that occurs in these spaces acts as a crucial bridgepoint in many ways. For one, chatting with people at the market harbours connection within the local community by expanding social networks. This sense of familiarity can evolve into increased self perceptions of agency and sense of belonging within the community as they become more comfortable in these environments. Some encounter vendors that provide goods of cultural relevance to them, and create mutual bonds on the basis of how they identify. Moreover, developing these personal bonds with vendors can then open up further conversations related to the central point of farmers’ markets – food. In seeing the people who are growing, preparing, and selling these goods, customers are introduced to people who are intimately involved with their local food systems. Being able to physically conceptualize the vendor’s role in production, and having the opportunity to ask questions about the food provides a way to ease them into learning more about how the agriculture system works. Whether it’s related to environmental, manufacturing, or economic areas of the business. 

At a vendor stand, two Asian women stand presenting their food for sale in large wooden display cases. The left container is full of rows of mochi, and the right has stacks of long sushi rolls.
Natural Japaneats vendor, Image courtesy of The Stop
At a vendor stand, two darker-skinned women stand selling teas, plant seedlings, some vegetables, and some bottled products. The tablecloth has "UBUNTU" on the front in large capitalized letters.
Ubuntu Community Collective vendor, Image courtesy of The Stop

Despite their benefits, farmers’ markets also face a unique set of challenges, including poor weather, longer entry wait times, lack of infrastructure like parking or shopping carts, and limited stock from vendors which all contribute to lower levels of participation. Additionally, the temporal nature of most farmers’ markets have made their business losses during the pandemic especially devastating. The visibility of outdoor markets also puts them at risk for witnessable infractions related to COVID-19 safety standards, which indoor stores can often overlook until it is leaked to the media or discovered by public health officials. On the other hand, some sources suggest that being outdoors in addition to strict adherence to COVID-19 safety measures provide a safer means of gathering compared to the prolonged indoor activity that would occur during conventional supermarket shopping. 

So how can we support farmers’ markets as we begin to emerge from the pandemic? To start, policymakers should acknowledge the vital role outdoor farmers’ markets play for individuals, small businesses, and communities. As essential businesses, outdoor markets operate with safer conditions than brick-and-mortar stores with regard to COVID-19, and regulations for capacity and operation should be expanded with more leniency to reflect that. People can also show support by buying (whether physically or digitally) or learning more about the needs of their local farmers’ markets. Online or offline, rain or shine, farmers’ markets prove that belonging and food security can all be locally grown. 

[1] Loblaws representative, telecommunications, June 1, 2021