Farmers' market putting affordable fresh food on the table

·9 min read

A community initiative in a remote northern community along the James Bay coast has been providing fresh affordable produce to its community members for more than a decade.

The farmers' market in Fort Albany runs every two weeks with the help of about five to eight volunteers.

The market was mainly created in response to the needs of children at Peetabeck Academy as they didn’t have access and couldn’t afford food that was available at the only store in the community, said market co-ordinator Joan Metatawabin.

“And it wasn’t fresh food always or it just wasn’t there for them,” she said. “So the school was trying to encourage healthy eating and the parents didn’t really have those choices most of the time.”

The estimated cost to feed a family of four a healthy diet for a week in Fort Albany in March 2019 was $423.56, according to the cost of the Revised Northern Food Basket.

In northern communities, limited retail competition may be a contributing factor to food insecurity, according to the article published in the 2017 Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention in Canada: Research, Policy and Practice journal. Responses to the survey showed that consumers living in the north were concerned with the quality of food, availability of certain products and the high cost of food.

North West Company (NWC) is the most common retailer in remote northern communities across Canada, including those along the James Bay coast. It operates 118 Northern Stores that sell food and general merchandise across the country.

In winter, supplies are delivered to remote fly-in communities by winter roads. In other seasons, products are flown in or brought in by barge.

According to Fort Albany's market co-ordinators, the cost of food in the Northern Store was higher before the NWC registered for the federal subsidy program called Nutrition North Canada (NNC). The program provides retail subsidies on certain food items based on weight and the community’s location.

Fort Albany’s farmers' market also receives the NNC subsidy that alleviates its transportation cost, said another market co-ordinator Gigi Veeraraghavan.

“The idea is that the cost of transportation shouldn’t be such a markup that it makes the price of food so unaffordable for residents,” she said. “It’s not a perfect program but it does something to alleviate those costs.”

The market has been held at Peetabeck Academy and the market co-ordinators try to do outdoor markets as much as they can.

“We’re looking to become more independent in a sense of not having to rely upon the school or other institutions to use their space. We have used the school gym but there are so many demands on the school gym, for actual athletics,” Veeraraghavan said.

A few years ago, the co-ordinators applied for the Local Poverty Reduction Fund to evaluate the market, its impact on the community and how it can be improved. In 2017, the not-for-profit market received $110,500 from the province.

“We have recently confirmed its importance to the community and some of our efforts to improve it have included putting some of that grant money into buying a sea can. We’re hoping to set that up,” Veeraraghavan said.

Some of the suppliers the non-profit has worked with throughout the years include No Frills, FoodShare, Railside General Supplies and Ben Deshaies Inc.

The co-ordinators started off by ordering 500 to 600 pounds from smaller stores like Zudel’s in Timmins and were using a small, 1,000-pound plane to deliver products. Now, the market organizers use AirCreebec through its partnership with Ben Deshaies Inc.

Since the start of the pandemic, there have been changes to the market’s operations.

Before the market starts, community members pre-purchase a $50 food box that contains eight types of fruit, five or six types of vegetables and some ground beef. When making a food order, organizers assume they’re going to make around 30 boxes, they said.

On a standard market day, when the order comes in, they bring it in from the airport, unpack it, weigh items, pack the boxes for pick-up and then set it up for the open shopping market. It takes about three or four hours of quick, heavy-lifting and sorting work.

There’s usually a line outside the market or a line to get to a certain product, Veeraraghavan said. Once the market opens, it can be over in 30 to 40 minutes. The leftover products are sold to those who couldn’t make it, didn’t order a box or don’t feel comfortable in “that mad rush,” Veeraraghavan said.

During the pandemic, custom orders have been offered to shoppers because people couldn't shop in person. A list of available items is published on a Facebook page and people call in or message to place an order.

After going through the usual process of unpacking and weighing food, rather than setting it up for an open market, the organizers and volunteers prepare custom orders. Metatawabin estimated they packed 60 to 70 boxes every two weeks for curbside pickup or delivery.

There is also a limit to how many people can help out during the pandemic.

Although there wasn’t any formal shopping market because of the pandemic last year, the co-ordinators ordered more food than in previous years.

In 2020, the market brought in 90,000 pounds of food. In previous years, the average would be 40,000 to 70,000 pounds.

According to Veeraraghavan, the increase in weight may be partly because of meat provided by a Mennonite farmer from Val Gagne that is popular with community members.

Last year, the co-ordinators also ordered 32 times compared to an average of 24 times.

The demand for food last year may be attributed to the market expanding its list of products, people staying at home instead of travelling and having more time to devote to the market, they said.

During the pandemic, in addition to perishable produce, the market started to offer food like bread, cheese and yogurt. The most popular items at the market are berries and bananas. At one point, avocados were quite popular among community members, co-ordinators said.

At one of the recent markets, a pound of beef cost $5, a tomato sauce $2, bread $3 and yogurt $8. Five pounds of onions cost $3.5, while two pounds of carrots were $1.5.

"We found we were too busy setting up markets to count and bag items so went to charging by each item. We just figure out a price according to our costs plus freight costs," Metatawabin said.

The prices of an apple, blueberries and strawberries at the recent market were 50 cents, $3 and $4, respectively.

“Many people that have come here, they always are amazed with the prices and they often say, ‘This is the same as what I buy where I live,’” Metatawabin said.

While they don't have overhead costs or salaries, the price of food fluctuates because they're buying from suppliers.

When placing an order, the co-ordinators strive to get some extra food for those who won’t be able to attend the market as well as for the school’s nutrition program and Meals on Wheels.

Even though the non-profit has a semi-standard order, adjustments are made every time they place an order.

“Sometimes, we receive food and it’s not in a great condition,” Veeraraghavan said. “Every order we have to talk about. We have to talk about what’s leftover from the other one, nobody bought this after all or raspberries were hugely expensive and not in great condition. There’s a lot to discuss.”

The co-ordinators also consider environmental issues. By ordering food in bulk, there’s less plastic waste, Metatawabin said. Some community members also started having their own gardens and many are looking at greenhouses.

The transportation costs depend on where the supplies come from.

The co-ordinators recently started re-ordering from FoodShare, a Toronto-based non-profit organization that delivers food to various communities and organizations.

When the market used to team with FoodShare, for a few years two trucking companies that had a refrigerated truck were running between Toronto and Cochrane. From Cochrane, the order would be taken on a train to Moosonee and then flown to Fort Albany.

Transportation remains a challenge for the project. Delivering food from Toronto to Cochrane is more expensive and it’s hard to find a truck to do the route, Metatawabin said. When they order from Toronto, they pay for the truck and the plane costs.

"That's how we used to operate entirely. And we pay for the food but because of the subsidy, the price is lowered," Veeraraghavan said. "When we order from Deshaies, they organize it differently because they're a big company."

When getting their produce from the Quebec-based Deshaies, the co-ordinators don't have to pay for the plane as it comes out of the subsidy directly. With this supplier, the order is also taken to the train in Cochrane to Moosonee and then flown in via AirCreebec.

“That’s the difference between working with smaller groups and the big guns, I’d say,” Veeraraghavan said.

From the time food goes to the train station, it usually takes a day and a half to receive the order depending on the weather, the amount of ordered food or planes available. The co-ordinators try to keep the timeframe short because of the perishable and frozen food. If there's a delay, the market is postponed by a day.

Putting in time into running the market can be challenging as it takes a lot of time and commitment and can feel like a full-time job, the co-ordinators said. Hours are spent preparing for the market, during the event and after it's done. On the day of the market, it can take 10 hours, Veeraraghavan noted.

“If people don’t show up, you can start to lose your enthusiasm. That happened before, too. But we always seem to get more and more people that are interested in helping, and that keeps us going,” said Metatawabin. For her, one of the reasons she likes running the market is helping people who need healthy food such as people with diabetes or on a Keto diet.

Without consistent support from family and community, volunteers and working together with suppliers and transportation companies, the project wouldn’t be made possible, the co-ordinators said.

Having a personal motivation to keep going is helpful, too, Veeraraghavan said adding what’s remarkable about the market is that it managed to run reliably for this long.

“It feels good when the market is done. It feels good when people are happy to get their food, it’s nice to interact with them,” she said. “I find a lot of reward just being a part of the market.”

Dariya Baiguzhiyeva, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,