Among all the confusion of buying organic, gluten-free, in-season, free-trade, GMO-free, and so on, there's one repeating factor that has not and hopefully (for the good of our food system) will not go away — local is better. Eating locally grown means you're connecting with the place you live in via its food, supporting family-owned Canadian farms instead of overseas companies that had to freeze and ship the food to you. This guarantees a higher quality of food, because when it gets to the farmer's market, it's at maximum a few days old — instead of spending a few weeks on a plane, boat, and shelf in your supermarket. You're preventing the damaging environmental effects that come with shipping long distances, and you're helping contribute to a community that grows this food for us. The food is definitely in-season if it's local, GMO-free because Canada has strict GMO laws on which crops can and can't be genetically modified, likely organic, as many Canadian farmers have become organic-certified over the years. At least, local growers are there to honestly tell you what chemicals, if any, were needed to grow that crop. Even if helping your environment and supporting the community you're a part of aren't your thing, local ingredients always taste better — so do it for the dish.
If you aren't convinced yet, food trend analysts like the National Restaurant Association have identified "locally sourced meat and seafood" and "locally sourced produce" as the top two trends for 2014 to look out for — so better now than never to check out the following places and bring out the inner foodie in you.
St. Lawrence Market (92–95 Front Street East)
The St. Lawrence Market was named the world’s best food market by National Geographic in 2012, and there's a reason locals tend to agree. In operation since 1803, the St. Lawrence Market has over 120 food vendors and a farmer’s market that takes over every Saturday morning, starting at 5:00 am and lasting to 3:00 pm, all year round. It divides itself into two segments — the North Market and the South Market. The South Market offers specialty fresh food vendors, and the North Market hosts the farmer’s market and antique dealers on Sundays. Here you will find seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables, delis, freshly-baked bread, pies, and much more.
St Lawrence Market by Neil Saunders
What distinguishes this market is the quantity of its vendors, their variety, and their focus on providing Canadian, quality items — especially if you’re looking for specialties like elk, venison, or other local game. The market is nicely located downtown and accessible by public transit from Union station, although it's not too easy to get to if you live outside the city and want to be there bright and early Saturday morning. The markets aren't open every day, which is unfortunate, and the South Market doesn't run past 6:00 pm, except on Fridays (when it's open until 7:00 pm). So you're forced to work around their schedule if you work late evenings. The North Market (farmers) is only open Saturdays, and the South Market is open Tuesday to Saturday. Although not as convenient as your local grocery store, eating locally sourced food you can trust is still worth it, because a Saturday morning out at the market with your family to hand-pick what you’ll eat that week is a great thing.
The Stop's Farmers' Market (601 Christie Street)
Do you ever ask the cashier at your supermarket where that head of lettuce you’re buying was grown, how it was produced, and what kind of pesticides (if any) it required? If so, you probably didn’t get an answer. Getting that information about what you're buying and eating is the first thing I fell in love with at The Stop’s Farmers’ Market at Wychwood Barns. The friendly growers themselves are there with more information than you need about everything they produce, and you can see the passion they have for their business. Why trust an organic label at the supermarket when you can go to Wychwood in person and look the farmer in the eye while asking those questions?
Russian Blue Potatoes in The Stops Farmers Market by Rob Hyndman
The Stop’s Farmers’ Market has a ton of Ontario seasonal farmers that come year-round — many of which are certified organic and seek to grow food in a sustainable and environmentally friendly fashion. Even in the winter, you’ll find everything from freshly baked bread to preserved limes, although not as much as you would find in the summer or fall. Produce becomes limited to a few token vendors during the cold months, but you’ll find that at all the Toronto farmer's markets. This market is open every Saturday from 8:00 am to 12:00 pm at Wychwood Barns, 601 Christie Street (at St. Clair Avenue West). On the downside, it isn’t the easiest market to get to by public transit. because you need to take a bus or streetcar, but there's free parking on the neighbourhood streets.
When you can’t seem to find the time to make it to your farmer's market to get the local food you want, Fresh City Farms is there. With a home base at Downsview Park, Fresh City Farms will deliver a box of groceries to your door across Toronto each week. At their base, they have a 3,000 square feet of green house space, in addition to four acres collectively across the city with member farmers. With them, you know what you’re getting is fresh and local, because it's grown within the GTA.
Founder Ran Goel believes,
"Fresh City provides trust and convenience. You can trust that your food is fresh and organically grown because we farm right here in Toronto and we work directly with other local farmers and artisans. And the food comes directly to your door."
Starting at $30.99 per week, you can get everything grown locally delivered right to you — which is great if you like experimenting with new fruits and vegetables and find making trips to the grocery store discouraging. This also tends to be a cost-effective option because you may find farmer's markets have higher prices for the same amount of food, due to the vendors having to include in their prices the cost of spending their time commuting to the city each week and spending the day selling their goods. On the downside, you don’t get to meet the farmers in person like you would at a local market, so a bit of disconnect is still there between you and what you eat. Also, Fresh City includes some things in their boxes that aren’t able to be grown locally, but instead are fair-trade and organic, like clementines and lemons — so if your goal is to go 100% local without imports, then this isn't the company for you.
The Big Carrot (348 Danforth Avenue
Conveniently located on The Danforth, The Big Carrot is a store that has specialized in natural, non-GMO, and environmentally-friendly food and products since 1983. It has been approved to process and package over 700 organic products in its juice bar, bulk, spice, cheese, and produce departments, and it takes pride in its commitment to providing fresh options versus competing commercial supermarkets. The Big Carrot supports and buys from local, small producers whenever possible, and it works hard with local growers to make its prices fair and competitive in Riverdale.
The Big Carrot in Toronto by Jason Baker
Sarah Dobec, The Big Carrot's PR and education outreach coordinator, gave me the rundown:
"The Big Carrot Natural Food Market has been a part of the Riverdale community for 30 years. We are Toronto's first certified organic retailer. A one-stop shop for groceries, supplements and body care. We also have a certified organic deli and juice bar. What sets us apart is our commitment to good food and good information. We have nutritionists on staff who can offer advice and free store tours. We also run cooking classes and free Thursday Night Lectures on a variety of health topics."
I have to agree with her. What really makes The Big Carrot stand out is a knowledgeable staff that take pride in what they sell as much as the farmers do, and the wide range of products they sell (even apart from groceries, like body care items, household goods, and juices from their in-house juice bar). The store itself is beautiful and well kept, and it's a fair option compared to most farmer's markets because of the convenient location (at Chester Station on the Danforth line) and the fact that it's open every day, on weekdays until 9:00 pm. This is still a supermarket, though, so you'll find more packaged goods (although non-GMO–verified for the most part) and other imports, so it's important you read all labels or ask the staff if you want to make sure you’re buying something that's locally grown.
Evergreen Brick Works (550 Bayview Avenue)
As one of Toronto’s largest farmer's markets, with 65 to 85 vendors, Evergreen Brick Works is definitely worth checking out. It's one of the most conveniently located markets, with easy access from the Don Valley Parkway, although there is paid parking in effect. Evergreen really encourages you to take public transit, and with a free shuttle bus running from Broadview Station and the 28A bus running from Davisville Station on Saturdays, there's no excuse not to go. Evergreen Brick Works runs all year round, although it moves into a warmer indoor space during the winter and has closer to 54 vendors. Things to look out for are the fresh veggies, frozen meats, preserves, honey, duck eggs, and prepared food vendors like Pimenton (vegan, gluten-free red velvet cupcakes), ChocoSol, and Clement’s Crepes. What sets this market apart is its frequent special events onsite, like art exhibits or cooking classes. On select Saturdays, Evergreen Brick Works has demonstration classes for $5 that will show you how to put your fresh, locally grown goods to use.
Fresh From the Farm (350 Donlands Ave)
It's all in the name – straight from the farm to your shopping basket. Fresh From the Farm is a store that is a quick bus ride away from Donlands Station off of the Danforth. With them, you can place food orders online and pick them up at the store, particularly with a huge selection of grass-fed meats, cheeses, fish, and other unique choices like elk and beef tongue. Jacqui and Tim Schmucker, owners and managers, boast
"an alternative to factory food production and globalised farming. We have direct relationships and partnerships with Ontario Amish and Mennonite family farmers and processors. These small traditional farm families raise food as naturally as possible – either organic or without hormones or drugs. We are passionate about what we do, and it shows through our traditional personal service to our customers."
You can get a turkey for thanksgiving, beef steaks for a special family dinner, or free-range eggs for Sunday brunch – their store truly bridges the gap between urban and rural. It is open Tuesday-Friday: 11:00am – 8:00pm, Saturday 9:00 am – 4:00 pm.
Dufferin Grove Farmers' Market (875 Dufferin St)
Dufferin Grove is a market open all year round that runs from 3pm to 7pm every Thursday. Its easy accessibility from Dufferin Subway Station and the weekday slot that runs after work hours makes it an ideal candidate for getting fresh, organic food if you live near the downtown core or on the west end. With vendors aplenty, you can grab a coffee, have a freshly baked gluten-free treat, listen to some live music and talk to the farmers before buying organic produce, heirloom plants, vegan chocolate, or a tofu burger.
When you shop for your groceries at a market like Dufferin, you are placing a vote to encourage healthy, clean, and locally-grown food. Most importantly, you are creating a connection between you and the food system, to lessen the disconnect between what is grown in Canada and what or when we eat. Like Anne Freeman, Market Coordinator, describes:
"Not only do you get to meet the people who produced what you'll eat for dinner, but instead of '52-weeks-a-year' cucumbers, you'll be choosing foods that tell the story of local weather, the seasons, and the special talents, interests or cultural background of the grower or maker. We can't compete with the 24/7 convenience of a supermarket. What we do offer is a friendly, weekly community gathering that's well worth building a routine around."
The Rowe Farms stores exhibit 'quality with a conscience', with a focus on animal welfare and environmentally-friendly produced food. By encouraging locally-grown foods, they are helping the environment by limiting the travel from farm to plate. They have a passion for making sure all animals are raised in a humane way, without antibiotics or growth-promoting hormones, and always eating healthy vegetarian diets. Shopping here is for the animal-lover within you.
Jamie Cooney, CEO, believes
"consumers should have a connection with the people who grow their food. Each day we prepare foods from a small group of local producers who care about the environment, animal welfare and sustainable food production. We specialize in supplying local food which is better for the farmer, the animal, the planet and ultimately our bodies."
They have seven stores in Toronto – Leslieville, Beach, Uptown, Annex, Bloor West, Roncesvalles, and at the St Lawrence Market, so you have more than one opportunity to find the spot nearest you. Most of the stores are open 7 days a week until 7pm, but you can find a complete list of store hours here. You can go to them for beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, pork and eggs, all raised locally in Ontario. They do not focus on organic certifications - organic animal feed is more expensive and difficult to source locally, so Rowe Farms chooses to focus on having healthy animals even without this organic label. However, watch out for the price tags because shopping here doesn't come cheap, but they promise tastier, healthier quality meats if you do.
Sorauren Farmers' Market (50 Wabash Ave)
Since 2008, with the help of community activism and the West End Food Coop of over 600 members, Sorauren has been inviting shoppers to enjoy a day in the park with a farmers' market every Monday from 3-7pm. Featuring musicians, local produce, fresh honey, and seasonal favourites, it is a wonderful market to check out, especially in the summer where you can walk through the park to see all the different vendors. Some to look out for include: Clover Roads Organic Farm, Kind Organics, Bees Universe, Baba Link Farm, Ying Yang Soy Food, De La Terre Bakery, and Monforte Dairy.
Program Manager, Ayal Dinner explains what sets them apart:
"We are a co-operative, owned by our members, we are also a non profit. As a community owned multi-stakeholder co-operative we were started by, and continue to be owned and overseen by community members, farmers, workers, and community partner organizations... We are also working with our local community health centre, drop-in centre, and others to increase food security for people in Parkdale without the resources to eat good, healthy, sustainable, local food."
It is a wonderful experience - with children playing and rollerblading across the park, farmers chatting with old friends, and young professionals doing their weekly shopping, you're bound to make a new friend at least. Sorauren Market is accessible by streetcar from Dundas West Station.
The Sweet Potato (2995 Dundas St W)
On the West End there is a health foods supermarket that boasts 'Natural Foods, Sweeter Prices'. Nestled in the beautiful High Park neighbourhood, The Sweet Potato has developed relationships with farmers and suppliers to get better deals in their stores and sourcing from Ontario as much as possible. Owner, Digs Dorfman, ran a farmers' market for many years until deciding to open a store that can be accessible all year round in 2008 – and so The Sweet Potato was born. You don't get the same experience as visiting farmers at a market, but it bridges the gap between market and grocery store, because they offer everything from produce to eco-friendly laundry detergent. However, keep an eye out for buying too much that comes from a package ('organic' canned soup, 'natural' kettle chips), because that is a quick and easy way to find yourself eating an imported and unhealthy product. Their hours of operation are also appealing, running from Mon-Thur 9am-8pm, Fri-Sat 9am-9pm and Sunday 10am-8pm. The Junction 40 Bus will drop you at their door from Dundas West Station.