From the hip Farmers’ markets have graduated into the mainstream of food distribution
It was a busy day at the Atwater Market. The flowers and bedding plants were hot items for a sunny afternoon in May and the fresh new vegetables had arrived. The colours and smells lifted me — I could not wait to get shopping.
I often go to this famous farmers’ market in Montreal, as it is only a 20-minute walk from my son’s home. We begin with a list and end up with bags of local seasonal treats, coffees from around the world, fresh buttery croissants that are lighter than air, fish from every ocean, sausages stuffed with apples and maple syrup, sachets of lavender, creamy curds, brilliant fresh flowers, dark chocolates and tangy herbs. The grandchildren are thrilled with their trays of fresh berries and the juices stain their once-clean clothing. It is a great adventure.
These little ones are not alone in their appreciation of taste, colour and texture. Folks of all ages stand full stop, letting the season’s first berry burst in their mouth and the benches are filled with families just tasting the goodness of nature. It is indeed a celebration of food.
Our own local market is certainly tiny compared to this Montreal landmark, but the experience is just as memorable. Although you will not find wild asparagus flown in that week from France, you will find fresh asparagus grown on a local farm and every type of seasonal vegetable. There are tables of pies and cakes, breads and buns, jam and puddings, quilts and handiwork, herbs, plants, flowers, woodwork and jewelry as well as meats, wines and beautiful things for the body. The sun shines, the band plays, seniors dance and the children run around with balloons on their wrists. It is a party and our date every Saturday morning.
The number of farmers’ markets in North America has grown 400 per cent in the past 15 years. This is a result of an expression of several societal needs. It fills the need to know where food comes from and feel a connection to it, the need to touch, feel and smell food in an environment that is not retail and sterile, the need to contribute to local economies and the need to eat well. For me, it is about feeding the local economy while ensuring that food miles are reduced. The lack or presence of regulation is not a deterrent and like so many others, I will purchase according to my core values and beliefs.
The right to choose
I was in Toronto when retail giant and Loblaw chief Galen Weston said that “Farmers’ markets are great — one day they’re going to kill some people though.” Someone will also die from food from full-scale retail. It is not a question of who is safer or has more control. All food is safe if handled, stored and prepared appropriately. It is about allowing consumers the right to choose and to ensure that our families and communities will benefit from that choice.
Farmers’ markets, like the organic industry, are often targeted as outside of mainstream. If major retailers believed that were true and these were not in the best interest of the consumer, there would not be an organic or a local counter in their stores. But there is, and those spaces are growing.
Farmers feed families and both rural and urban consumers like that idea. In this world of transparency, consumers have an expectation and often a feeling of entitlement to the story behind food. They have strong opinion of the value of food in their lives. One day in the park I asked a young man visiting the farmers’ market what he planned to do with his life. His response was that he was going to be an organic gardener “because it is so important.” Again, he was being true to his core principles and beliefs.
It is true that farmers’ markets will not feed a city or the world but the local food movement has evolved into providing for day cares, hospitals and food service. Even fast-food chains want to be part of the picture and want farmers and their message to help them connect to the public. The message behind food is so important that McDonald’s tray liners this summer will feature producers of Alberta beef. Dave Solverson and daughter Joanne are so confident in the local goodness of Alberta beef they are willing to put their name on it and McDonald’s knows this is important to the consumer. To make informed choices consumers need to see this kind of information through an intrinsic transfer from the local farmers’ market right through to fast food and retail.
The mission statement of the Atwater Market, “to give Montrealers access to local produce in their public markets that relate to their values” beautifully captures the essence of marketing. Where you shop is an individual choice as is what you believe. Whenever you go for product or produce that aligns with your values, take a moment to be thankful for it and then celebrate the beauty and variety in the foods that we eat.