By Sarah B. Hood 
Young Street – May 30, 2012

It’s one of the most profound changes in North American food culture since the drive-through: the neighbourhood farmers’ market, where fresh fare from local farmers is snapped up by urban dwellers who are tired of woody, out-of-season tomatoes and hard, oversized strawberries grown thousands of miles away. As recently as 2000, there were few such options in Toronto, apart from the venerable St. Lawrence Market. Now there are about 30 in parks and public buildings around town, of which almost one-third operate year-round. Although they share a family resemblance, each one has its own unique personality; to demonstrate, here’s a comparison of three that reflect their neighbourhoods.

At Evergreen Brick Works in the Don Valley, the emphasis is squarely on local food producers, some of whom have a sort of celebrity status among city foodies—partly because they supply high-end restaurants as well. On Saturday mornings, the market’s high enclosure roofed with corrugated metal reverberates with the buzz of conversation and live music. Wafting aromas tempt a crowd of tourists, sporty locals in high-tech bike helmets and well-to-do ladies in expensive recent salon ‘dos as they graze amidst an impressive “Local Food Court” and shop from vendors.

“We try to support vendors that haven’t broken into the city scene yet; we try to ramp up the educational aspects, so people learn about cooking things like kohlrabi, kale and bitter melon,” says board chair Emma Baron. On Sunday mornings, film industry folks and media types in graphic tees and expensive sandals linger near fancy baby chariots while toddlers enthusiastically taste unfamiliar vegetables at the kids’ nutrition table.

“You get the full range of customers: those who are learning to eat healthy, and consequently how to cook with the ingredients, and the ones who do know,” says the ebullient Zach Theo of Highmark Farms. Leslieville, Wychwood and a third market in Barrie represent the entire customer base for Highmark’s 20 acres of vegetables and livestock. Theo won’t even sell from the farm; “The signage we had up, we took down,” he says, “because it was cutting what we had for the farmers’ markets.”

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