Initial interview (Sanjay Govindaraj and Judy Maan Miedema only): July 5, 2011
Site visits: August 24 and 25, 2011 (Erin Nelson)
In 2006, Region of Waterloo Public Health led a food system planning process that included consultation with a wide variety of community stakeholders. One of the resulting recommendations was to develop markets for fresh produce in neighbourhoods where access was limited due to either geographic or economic factors. Public Health partnered with Opportunities Waterloo Region – an organization dedicated to poverty reduction – and obtained a grant from the Lyle Hallman Foundation, which allowed for the opening of two pilot project markets in 2007 and another three in 2008. These markets sourced food from the Elmira Produce Auction, and sold it at a slight mark-up in the neighbourhood markets.
Today, three markets continue to operate – two in Kitchener and one in Cambridge. Public Health maintains a connection to the markets, but has largely stepped back in terms of its involvement, leaving management in the hands of neighbourhood organizations. In Kitchener, produce is now sourced from Jay West (a local food broker), with a number of other vendors selling processed foods, while at the Cambridge market the majority of the vendors are now farmers engaging in direct sale. The primary goal of all three markets remains to increase the accessibility of fresh, nutritious, local foods to marginalized populations (including low income community members and senior citizens); another main goal is to ensure support for area farmers.
The markets range in size. The smallest has entirely volunteer vendors and serves an average of approximately 60 consumers/week, while the largest has between 12-15 vendors engaged in direct sale of their products and sees an average weekly traffic of approximately 600 community members. In addition to the buying and selling of food, the markets also have community nutrition workers who help teach consumers how to prepare the food they buy in a healthy way (e.g. by providing recipes and samples of prepared meals) and performers who provide music and entertainment. They also sometimes host special events, such as a competition in which neighbourhood restaurants competed in a taste-off using recipes made with market products. To increase affordability, market vouchers are provided to pregnant women who participate in the Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program and people served by Community Outreach Workers.
Each neighbourhood market is coordinated by a part-time staff person who is employed for the market season. Volunteer support is a much greater part of market operations, even in the case of paid staff. In addition to the coordinators, a small number of staff hours are provided by people who are able to incorporate market activities into their positions – for example, a Salvation Army employee who serves as the Community Nutrition Worker at one market, or a City of Kitchener Community Resource Centre employee who is able to do some market support work.
The most important human resource for the market work has come from volunteer hours, on the part of paid staff such as the aforementioned coordinator, and also by people who are not paid at all. Each market has approximately 12-15 core volunteers, who fill the roles of vendors, organizational committee members, and do other necessary tasks, such as set-up and take-down on market days.
The role of the business vendors who participate in two of the three markets is another important human resource, and coordinators of both markets note that, so far, no vendors have left the markets. As one explains: “They like the atmosphere here, that’s what everybody says to us.”
Each of the three markets relies on space provided free of charge by the City of Kitchener and City of Cambridge (in two cases, community centre parking lots, and in the third a public park). Other market necessities, such as tables and tents, have been acquired through a combination of donations and purchases made with grant funding.
Small amounts of money for the markets have been provided by, for example, the City of Cambridge, Together for Health, TD Friends of the Environment, United way of Kitchener/Waterloo, and the Preston BIA; however, the main financial resource for the markets to date has been funding from the Lyle S. Hallman Foundation, which provided start-up money, as well as some follow-up funds to pay for, among other things, part-time coordination staff at each market. The Hallman funding proposals have been submitted over the years by Public Health. Because that organization is attempting to decrease its direct involvement in the project, it is likely that future funding will have to come from other sources.
The community and social resources that have been mobilized around this project are perhaps the most important element of its success to date. So many community partnerships have been developed as the work has progressed that it would be impossible to outline them all here. Some key community collaborators and leaders – in addition to Waterloo Region Public Health and Opportunities Waterloo Region, who initially spearheaded the project – include the Preston Business Improvement Association, St Clements Parish, Grand View Baptist, Langs farm Village association, Alan Reuters Seniors Center, Highland Stirling Community Group, Mill Courtland Community Center and Centerville Chicopee Neighbourhood Association, the City of Cambridge, City of Kitchener, Waterloo Region Social Services, Mosaic Counseling and Family Services, The Working Center and the Salvation Army. These organizations have worked together to, among other things, provide the markets with community nutrition workers, volunteers, in-kind donations including phones, tables, office space, storage space, and staff hours, and the use of charitable organization status for money management.
Policy and Program Resources
It would be impossible to overstate the role that Waterloo Region Public Health has had in the development and implementation of the neighbourhood market initiative. Waterloo Region Social Services has also provided assistance, as its Community Outreach Workers have distributed market vouchers to vulnerable populations that can be redeemed for market products. The markets were also the beneficiaries of a Health Innovation award given out by the provincial Ministry of Health and Long Term Care.
In spite of those examples of assistance however, the markets do not have any significant long term, sustained support or access to resources through government policies or programs.
The main desired asset identified by people involved in all three markets was increased – and sustained – funding, particularly to pay for year-round market coordination, but also for items such as refrigeration units, and for more programming, for example around nutrition and health-promotion. The two locations that do not currently have farmers involved in direct sale would also like to develop closer relationships with local producers, though they note that this will be challenging because their markets are so small. One final important desired asset is increased partnerships, as well as the maintenance of existing collaborative relationships. For example, it would be useful to bring the YMCA and Immigrant Services into the project.
Challenges (and Overcoming)
One of the main challenges facing the neighbourhood market initiative is “bridging the affordability gap” to make the markets accessible to the target population – low income or otherwise vulnerable community members. This has been particularly challenging as there has been equal valued placed on the goal of increasing access to those with low incomes with a desire to support local farmers by ensuring they are paid fairly for their work. As one person involved in project coordination puts it: “You want to bring fresh and locally grown fruits and vegetables to the community, and especially to low income people…but at the same time you’re also trying to pay the farmer fair value, and if we have to become self-sustaining, we have to make a profit. So how do we sell so that we can support people of low income…but also farmers?” One part of the answer has been the voucher program, mentioned above, which provides gift vouchers in 5$ denominations that can be redeemed for market goods.
Complying with public health standards around food safety, dependence on good weather, ensuring that the supply available meets people’s basic needs, and getting enough local consumers to attend the markets have been other challenges. The coordinator of the smallest of the three markets notes they get 35-75 people per week: “You don’t want to do it unless you have people coming…so the promotion is huge…We try to educate people when they come. We have recipes to give them, to tell people what to do with the vegetables. But the key is, we can only do that education if they come…Our biggest thing we’re doing on that is more signs and word of mouth, and every year is getting better as far as numbers.”
The markets have been very successful at increasing access to healthy local foods, particularly for the elderly and low income people. In the opinion of one person closely associated with the project since its beginning, the biggest success has been “exposing people in the community to fresh fruits and vegetables, and promoting the whole local thing.” Not only are people accessing good food, but as a representative of Opportunities Waterloo Region points out, “people are learning how to cook with the food too.”
Equally, if not more important, has been the community-building impact of the markets. A Cambridge City Council member who sits on one of the market organizing committees explains that “it’s not just a health thing, it’s a social thing.” Everyone seems to concur. One market coordinator suggests that “we don’t just want to be a farmers’ market, we want to be a part of the community”, and another notes that “the huge thing…is that it brings people together…I live in an apartment building three doors down and everybody can’t wait for the market.” The bringing together of people through market participation has added benefits, as it helps them access resources they might not otherwise have discovered. A community centre staff person finds it “nice to see all the people coming in who had never been here before, and they come for the market, but find out about our programs”, and an Opportunities Waterloo Region representative points out that “relationships are so important, because that helps lead people to other supports and services, and it strengthens peoples’ whole social network.”
One of the lessons that can be taken from this project is the importance of having a strong champion to push an initiative forward in its early years. “It’s time consuming at first” explains one of the project co-founders “to get something like this going, and it took a lot of support from Public Health at the beginning, not just the first year, but the first few years.”
While an early champion is key, it is also essential for that actor or actors to develop community buy-in and build strong, lasting partnerships with members of different sectors. An Opportunities Waterloo Region representative suggests that one of the earliest advocates for the project was “a master at community engagement and community development…there has to be that person…to build that relationship with business, with government, with non-profits…it takes a servant kind of leadership to do this kind of work…you don’t take credit…you bring people up, and then you step behind.”
Funding, particularly in the early years, is also essential for success. As the Waterloo initiative seeks to become less dependent on external funding sources, one potential strategy forward is a vision to eventually take revenues from markets that are profitable and invest them into the markets that are struggling to break even. That kind of model would take a lot of work however, “and require a lot of business planning…and you have to ask how many you can balance…do you need three for-profit markets for every two that are just maybe breaking even, or what is the balance? We need more of that kind of planning” explains one person involved in the project.
Regardless of what happens with funding in the future, the high levels of community buy-in and participation that have been achieved in Waterloo Region have created a sense that, even if funding is discontinued, the project will continue. One early organizer explains that “it has reached a critical mass now, so I don’t think it will end, even if the funding ends.” A community group administrator agrees, noting that she recently discussed the possibility of an end to external funding with her Board Chair, who responded: “I don’t care. We’ll find a way to fund it.”
 The Canada Prenatal Health Program is for pregnant women who want to have a healthy baby, but may be financially disadvantaged, new to Canada, or socially isolated. Program participants attend weekly meetings that provide opportunities for social interaction with other pregnant women, free childcare bus fare, education about healthy pregnancies, nutrition and cooking, a healthy snack, and a free bag of groceries.
 Community Outreach Workers are funded through Social Services and work with individuals, households, and groups to see that basic needs are met and to build on and develop capacity and new skills. They provide information and connect them to community services as needed and are located at 25 community centre sites across Waterloo Region.