In Vancouver, the local food phenomenon has hit the big time – and a wall.
“There’s a huge awakening around local food,” said Karen Morton, founder of EcoUrbia, an urban farmers advocacy organization. “People wanting it, people knowing about it; and it’s just really been in the last three years the phenomenon has started happening.”
The Vancouver Farmers Market (VFM), for instance, has grown in the past 15 years from having one farmers market in the Trout Lake area, to five markets this past summer, in addition to a year-round market. In 2005, VFM vendors earned $1.4 million and saw 5,000 to 7,000 visitors a week. Last year, VFM farmers, prepared food and artisan crafters pulled in $5 million and saw 15,000 visitors a week, according to Tara McDonald, executive director of Your Local Farmers Market Society, who witnessed this demand frenzy first-hand.
“We knew that the markets were successful, and this success helped VFM realize a number of other things,” said McDonald. “That the growing public interest in local food could be even more of a real game-changer for the viability of small farms and farmers, that we had a growing wait-list of farmers seeking space at farmers markets and that the opportunity to grow was at our doorstep with policy-makers, the public and local food businesses.”
Local demand is also challenging the capacity of local farmers to deliver their product to restaurants, alternative distributors and retailers. But the barrier that keeps the supply side of local food economy from growing is mostly structural, according to a 2009 Vancouver Economic Development Commission report, The Economy of Local Food in Vancouver.
To address that gap, a group of dedicated local food advocates, known as Local Food First, including McDonald, put their heads together to come up with an action plan to improve the infrastructure and logistics needed to grow the local food economy.
Their solution, the New City Market (NCM) proposal, presented to the City of Vancouver last year, was well received by the social planning, real estate and planning departments. The NCM would be a local food hub in Vancouver with aggregation and distribution services, a permanent year-round site for the Vancouver Farmers Market, a commercial kitchen for producers of value-added products and cold storage.
“What’s important is it’s all about demand,” said NCM business plan lead Darren Stott. “There’s no point building New City Market unless the demand is there, and we’re meeting some kind of demand.”
A century ago, British Columbia produced most of its own food on small-scale family farms. Since then, B.C. has begun to rely more and more on imported food, produced on massive farms in an agribusiness industry owned and controlled by fewer and fewer large global food industry companies. Today almost 50% of B.C.’s food is imported. But the consumer is pushing back.
The New City Market would provide infrastructure and business services for small local farmers and other local producers and food businesses that would help them more smoothly and efficiently run their food businesses and sell their products to the very hot local food market.
Currently, smaller operations that sell their products mainly at the farmers market face a lot of obstacles and challenges to get their local products to consumers, retailers and chefs.
“Each of these resources will open up opportunities for small rural and urban growers to direct-sell their products to a greater range of interested local buyers,” said McDonald, who is also NCM’s project lead. “The critical piece in all this is that the services and infrastructure serve to effectively connect small producers to small buyers such as chefs or small grocers.”
Emi Do, an urban farmer at Yummy Yards, is very interested in the NCM concept.
“I would use the farmers market and storage,” said Do. “Currently, urban farmers are lacking in adequate, affordable cold storage during peak season. Having a central location where we could access cold storage and then sell it in that same space would be a phenomenal asset.”
Stott explained that in a recent survey of chefs in the restaurant industry, the top 10 of 15 trends relate to local food, which shows these trends are not going away.
“Restaurants are falling over themselves to access local food,” said Stott. “And if you speak to some of those restaurants, they’re finding it difficult, and so are their distributors, to get hold of that product.”
New City Market has recently been holding workshops and eliciting feedback from producers and the public. Its preliminary business plan is online, and a reworked version should be out by spring 2012. •