Community Food

Robin Tunnicliffe of Saanich Organics

I have been doing a lot of reflecting, since my beloved cornerstore closed down in October (Cadboro Bay Market 1999-2010 R.I.P.), it seems that the state of small business has become deplorable and no one is safe, not even big business. Not to be cliché, but the fact remains that the recession has really taken its toll, even if the eye of the storm has now passed, which I think is highly exaggerated; really is the economy a-okay Prime Minister Harper? So, if there is a silver lining within this sordid experience, a lesson that generation Y can take away, what is it? Yes there is a lesson, the take-home message is that it is time to wake up and support: healthy, livable and sustainable communities by buying locally. It’s time to create the future that we want to see. So, after a long break, let’s kick off the first of many posts to come, about the importance of community farm markets.

Moss Street Market

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the Moss Street Market is the place to be, if you live in or are visiting Victoria for the weekend. A cacophony of sounds and sweet aromas greet you, upon locking up your bike to a nearby street pole. It is hard not to be taken aback by the flurry of activity that you encounter as soon as you hop off of the bus adjacent to Sir James Douglas Elementary School; where the market has been hosted seasonally for the past 20 years. The experience of attending a farm market harkens back to a simpler time, when it was normal to know your butcher and baker on a first name basis.

Taking a look around at the multitude of different attractions from the: artisan baker, to the local organic produce, to the live music and interactive activities for kids, there really is something for everyone at this market. But surprisingly enough, this winning formula isn’t easy to attain.

Happy Customer

In a 2008 study of farm markets in Oregon state, over half of all new farm markets that open were destined to fail: “of the 32 markets that closed between 1998 and 2005, the overwhelming majority had sort life spans. Fifteen of the 32 markets (nearly 47%) closed following their first season.” Therein lies part of the solution, if an upstart farm market can weather the turbulence of first season, then it is safe to assume that it will be around for years to come. But how is this accomplished? For Laura Jane, the coordinator of the Moss Street Market the best way to overcome the first year business hump, requires an understanding of customer background and needs: “within the Fairfield community there is a lot going on here and people are very active. It also depends on satisfying a niche, this market is really special- all the veggies are local and everything is organically grown.” So by satisfying the needs of the community, then the market becomes integral to the culture of the neighborhood, which is something that Philipe Lucas, a municipal councilor with the city of Victoria has taken into consideration.

The original downtown public market in Victoria

As a director on the volunteer board of the Victoria Downtown Public Market Society, he understands that planning a new market can be a daunting task, fraught with problems especially in a downtown city core that has had mixed results with community markets in the past. Built in 1891 and sadly paved over in 1962, there was an indoor public market in what is now Centennial Square. Then again, briefly in the 1980s there were two start-up markets that quickly fizzled out due to lack of public parking, food options and the high cost of booth space for farmers and vendors alike. But this time around, local farmer Bernie Martinwood of Two-Wings Farms believes that things will be different: “It’s happened before, many years ago but it died out. But it was probably ahead of its’ time then, but I think the city is ready for it now,” and from all indications it likely will be. With the overwhelming success generated by their September 26th kick-off event Eat Here Now: The Harvest Food Festival and the recent launch of the monthly winter markets at Market Square (the next one is happening this Saturday December 18th from 11AM until 3PM).

The future is looking especially ripe when it comes to the establishment of a new downtown permanent public market, would be a boon to local farmers, say’s Robin Tunnicliffe of Saanich Organics: “we need alternative food sources, and the farmer’s are spending a lot of time to get the alternative food system going, and it would be nice to have a place to go where it is all organized for them,” she says in reference to the efforts of the Downtown Public Market Society. So it seems, as if we are witnessing a re-localization of food, which makes sense to food activists like Councilor Lucas: “now as more and more people start living in this city, growing their own food and becoming interested in food security issues, you start to realize that terms like food security and slow food, didn’t exist [ten years ago] and would not have meant anything if you said them.” That being said, there is still an obvious critique that needs to be discussed when looking at the local foods movement. If anything, it is guilty of painting an overly rosy picture which does not accurately portray what is actually happening within regional food networks.

Laura Jane, Coordinator of the Moss Street Market and Volunteers

With per capita spending on family food, at a level that is half of what it was fifty years ago, it seems that the number family priority is to find quick and accessible convenience foods. This often displaces nutritious whole foods from the dinner table, as they take longer to prepare. This reality has to do with prohibitive prices, which are worsened by the stagnation of wages for the working and middle class. So understandably, for those on a fixed income the choice between imported hothouse tomatoes from California over the heirloom variety grown locally- is unfortunate but clear-cut.This is something that Councilor Lucas advocates must change but only if we are willing to make a short-term sacrifice for a long-term gain; citing the role of supply and demand as a solution. Only by making an effort to buy more food locally, will prices begin to fall as supply rises to keep pace with growing demand, thereby driving down production costs down. This price-parity, as Councilor Lucas continues, has already been reached for dietary staple foods produced on Vancouver Island like: potatoes, carrot bunches and lettuce. Furthermore, the local food movement has an imagine problem, a cursory survey of those in attendance at the Moss Street Market suggests a lack of ethnic and socio-economic diversity.

To Tread Lightly with some hearty produce

The Downtown Public Market Society, has also made it clear that part of it’s modus operandi, is to reach out to those in the traditionally marginalized communities; to better reflect the diversity within our local food shed. Councilor Lucas, says that this starts by working collaboratively with the Coast Salish people on Southern Vancouver Island: “its hard to talk about local food without talking about the history of the island, so we really hope that if we do find an ideal location, that we would be able to bring in the First Nations communities to take part and champion their local food culture as well. That is part of our local history that we have lost, here in Victoria-there isn’t a restaurant here in town, that you can get local First Nations food. The closest that I have come is being invited to weddings or potlatches in the past, as a unique and amazing experience that I would hope more people in Victoria would benefit from.”

This point, strikes a chord with me. As I write and reflect upon the insights gained from interviews with Laura Jane and Councilor Lucas, the take home message from both experiences suggests that the term local food is really just another way of saying community food. Not only are we helping to grow more local food, by using our discretionary purchasing power at farm markets rather than at big box grocery stores, but we are also helping to grow a greater sense of community. Which in the future, will hopefully be more inclusive of all rather than a select few.

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