Farm-Fresh Flavours in the Concrete City

Joy Warwick hands her 5-year-old son, Nobu, a litre basket of wild blueberries at the Riverdale Park West farmers’ market, and watches him dig in. The berries were picked the day before by Pedro Wilson of Blueberry Hill Wildcrafters, just outside Timmins, Ontario. They’re fresh and sweet, and they meet with Nobu’s approval — a good thing, because he thinks sugar is “yucky.”

“I always eat organic,” Warwick says, “and I always eat local. I’m so glad that these people do this work, so we can eat.”

Most people shop for groceries at big-box warehouses or climate-controlled chain stores. Food is fuel; they buy it because they have to. In any city, their food would be the same. Then there are those who want their food to taste like something, who want more than two varieties of tomato and prefer their apples unwaxed. They satisfy their taste buds – and support the local economy – by going straight to the source: farmers.

Buying food from those who grow it doesn’t mean travelling into the country. Across Toronto, on virtually every day of the week, farmers’ markets feature locally grown produce, locally raised meat and other products, such as unpasteurized honey. But check the trucks and boxes. Produce resellers – people who purchase food at the Ontario Food Terminal then mark up the price for resale – are at almost every farmers’ market, though they’re easy to spot.  They have generic trucks or no trucks at all (as opposed to trucks with logos and farm names) and they have no signage (farmers proudly announce who they are and where they’re from, even their address). And look down, beside and underneath the tables: if the boxes say Del Monte, the produce is decidedly non-local.

“It’s such a sin to misrepresent yourself as a grower,” says Deborah Cauz of the Sherway Gardens Farmers’ Market Association. “Farmers are up at 2:30 or 3 o’clock in the morning picking, packing, and loading. Day after day after day.”

Now 10 years old, her market is one of the city’s oldest. “South Etobicoke has a large immigrant population,” Cauz says. “Polish, Czech. Europeans are used to farmers’ markets, and they say they prefer markets to the stores.”

That’s because farmers’ markets aren’t just about shopping. They’re also about education. At the East York Civic Centre market, people crowd around Puiu Ilisei’s table, where the beekeeper explains the uses of pollen (it supports liver function, he says) and propolis oils (they help build the immune system, he says). His beehives are in the Lake Scugog area, but he also has a hive on Eastern Avenue, where he trains youth in beekeeping. (“Honey makes you smarter!” Ilisei says.)

“I come here because of the sense of community,” says shopper Chris Girotti, who lives nearby. “Lots of our neighbours shop here, too. It reminds me of my childhood in St. Catharines, when I used to go to the market with my grandmother. I want to support the local farmer. I feel closer to the food I buy.”

That’s good news to Alvaro Venturelli of the Plan B Organics farm in Flamborough. “To build strong communities, we need to gain access to food,” he says. “We need to celebrate in local communities, in our gathering places, the wonder of good food.”

And the farmers give back to the people who support them. Those at Sherway Gardens donate their surplus produce to Second Harvest, which picks it up to feed homeless youth in Etobicoke. “Well, it’s supposed to be surplus,” says the Sherway Association’s Cauz. “But I know one vendor who brings extra. Actually, a lot of them do. It’s partly because they’re proud of their product, but it’s also because they know what it’s like to be without.”

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