13 years ago, at a time when the local, organic food and urban agriculture movement was experiencing a re-birth thanks to - among other things - great shows on the cooking channel, celebrity chefs like our own Jamie Kennedy here in Ontario (who sometimes joins us at the market and who was the keynote speaker at our founding meeting) and Jamie Oliver in the UK, a growing awareness of the importance of eating well and the impact of industrial ag on our environment; a group of us the neighbourhood (Graeme Hussey, Ayal Diner, Melissa Benner and myself) came together with the idea of starting a local food cooperative grocery store where we would be able to shop for our favourite local meats, veggies, fruits, dairy and other items as well as a selection of other healthy foods, soaps, treats and the usual things we bought at local stores before Uber Eats, Amazon and on-line shopping so radically changed how we live, work and shop.
Our idea (and dream), the “West End Food Co-op” came - and went. Specifically, it closed its doors last year although the organization that predated WEFC - the Sorauren Farmers Market - remains in place at Sorauren Park every Monday afternoon from 3-7.
When we began researching how to start a business - a “social enterprise” - a cooperative business owned by the workers, customers and farmers - we quickly realized that starting such an innovative business would be both time consuming and tricky. But in the days before “local food” was as ubiquitous as it is now (even No Frills sells at least some local foods and features Ontario farmers in its marketing) the response from people in Parkdale, Roncesvalles, and High Park was amazing. We quickly had more volunteers and offers of help than we knew what to do with.
Starting a Market
I remember well the day Melissa Benner, the daughter of a farmer and someone who worked on the family farm herself, suggested we start a Farmers Market before a grocery store. What a great idea! With a lot of elbow grease and a little of our own money we were off to the races and soon joined by other folks we knew in the local food movement.
In the beginning the market was small and volunteer run - and a lot of fun. My partner Paula Larrondo and I raised both our girls Michaela and Maya at the market - helping out every Monday after work/school. Other volunteers did the same and some farmers brought their babies and little ones to market and we helped out with the childcare. It was a dream come true and aside from being a great place to buy local, healthy food directly from the folks who grow it - folks like Daniel from Cutting Veg, Tony from Wheel Barrow Farms, John and Irina from Bees Universe, Henry and Sarah from Field Sparrow Farms and John and Inge from Clover Roads Farms all of whom are still with us - it was a great place to experience community.
The market has been a success but unfortunately the co-op was not. West End Food Co-op is not the only Co-op to close or be sold off in the last few year - Eat Local Sudbury has gone and the Ontario Natural Food Co-op was sold to wholesale supplier from BC, Horizon Natural Foods, a for-profit company that was itself a co-op at one time.
Whatever problems food co-ops might be having these days in Canada, Farmers Markets are a growing and expanding - if small - part of the food sector. A real success story.
Our market became independent once again last year when the Co-op closed. But that’s not as easy as it sounds. Those of us running the market - myself as a volunteer, other volunteers you probably know well if you are a regular shopper like Eric, James and Randy, some of the vendors/farmers and Helen Acarman our Market Coordinator - started almost from scratch in terms of learning how to run a registered (that was an adventure in-and-of-itself) non-profit organization. And it’s still a learning curve for us six months after receiving our “articles of incorporation” from the Province of Ontario.
“Recipe” for A Successful Market
If you’re like my Dad, a hard working business guy who still remembers food rationing during and after World War II, then you might be one of those many folks who feel the food system in Canada is pretty good.
Our farms and stores in Canada provide us with a wide selection of product at relatively affordable prices in comparison to many other places in the world. Food prices in Canada are among the lowest in the world relative to income (that is if you are not living in the far north).
And while the market has been home to many of us who have concerns about the agro-industrial food system - both farmers and customers - it has also been home to folks who are just looking for some nice cider, a meal after work with the kids in the park or place to have some delicious Tibetan momos and hang out with friends. I like to think our market is many things to many people - an inclusive and welcoming space that helps many people meet their needs - including some people who experience food insecurity and know that volunteering will help them access healthy local food at a lower price or even for free.
Going forward we have a lot of exciting ideas I hope you will want to be part of.
We want to start a bokashi composting pilot project, grow a few veggies in the park, hold a founding meeting where customers, volunteers, staff and vendors can see how the market is set up and comment on our bylaws, policies and budget and we hope to follow the lead of our friends and supporters at Friends of Sorauren Park and start of youth version of the market so we can let young people gain some hands-on experience in learning how to run a business.
When we began the market 11 years ago we had a large number of volunteers from the neighbourhood. Somehow we drifted away from that model but we need to return to our roots. We need more volunteers from the neighbourhood and return to being a truly neighbourhood farmers market. If you live in the neighbourhoods surrounding the market please consider dropping by and saying “hi” - we’d love to have you and whatever time you can spare to help us make Sorauren Farmers Market an even bigger success.
Have a great summer and please come by the market info table and say “hi”.