It is another sunny Saturday morning and the Kamloops Farmers’ Market is bustling with activity. The smells of fresh cut flowers and frying donuts waft through the air as an eclectic mix of locals browse the stalls and take in the atmosphere.
“We come pretty much every week,” says visitor Shira Osborne, sipping a cold brew coffee. “I love all the baked goods here, but my favourite part is petting all the dogs.”
With recent crises like the pandemic stripping grocery shelves, food producers and organizers behind the scenes ensure weekly markets continue to deliver essential food items like eggs and vegetables.
From small producer grants to coupons for local community members, market organizers are building on decades of local knowledge to serve on the frontlines of food security.
The Kamloops Farmers’ Market Society hosts three weekly markets. The oldest, the Saturday market, currently held at the former Stuart Wood School, a Wednesday morning market in front of the library on Victoria Street and an indoor winter market Saturdays in the greenhouse at Purity Feed on Okanagan Way.
Additionally, the Kweseltken Farm and Artisan Market is hosted by the Community Futures Development Corporation of Central Interior First Nations (CFDC CIFN) on Sunday mornings at the Kamloopa Powwow Arbour.
The Kweseltken Market was founded as a direct response to the supply chain disruptions in early 2020, and all four markets played a key role in keeping community members fed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Laying a secure foundation
The current iteration of the Kamloops Farmers’ Market began 45 years ago, explains Kamloops Farmers’ Market Manager Greg Unger.
“It started in 1977 when the Kamloops United Church hosted an international conference about social justice issues. One of the topics at the conference was how food security relates to social justice,” Unger says. It was out of these discussions the idea for a local farmers market was born.
“And so right from the very start it’s had food security and food sovereignty built into it,” he says.
“To me food security is knowing that you have somewhere to go [like the market] and be secure in the knowledge that there will be food for you,” Unger explains. “Food sovereignty is the idea that people have the right to choose what kind of food they eat [or] grow or the food ecosystem that they’re in, and should be able to determine for themselves. I believe the two ideas are definitely tied together.”
All of the Kamloops markets participate in the BC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Coupon Program, an innovative program that brings together community organizations and farmers to offer lower-income people access to fresh local food.
Coupons, along with food skills training, are available through participating community organizations. Market vendors show their participation with signage and accept these coupons for their products in lieu of cash. As of publication, just over $23,700 worth of coupons have been redeemed at Kamloops markets in 2022 alone.
“The nutritional coupons have been invaluable over the years,” says Deiter Dudy owner of Thistle Farm. “They have gone a long way to providing people with access to fresh local food that they otherwise would not have been able to enjoy.”
Farmers markets and resilience to supply chain disruptions
“In terms of food security, these last few years have really highlighted to me the importance of local food,” Unger says. “Starting in 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, both the Kamloops Farmers’ Market and the BC Association of Farmers Markets pushed really hard to make sure that the farmers markets in the province got the status of essential service.”
“We wanted to disabuse people of the idea that the farmers market is just a place to go and hang out. I mean, yes, it is. But it’s more than that,” he says “It’s also a grocery store. It’s where you go to get your local fresh produce.”
When you shop at a farmers market the supply chain is short — there are no distributors, warehouses or grocery chains acting as middlemen. And that’s good for food security as there are fewer failure points between you and your food.
“[These last few years] that whole notion [of farmers markets] just kept being reinforced, with all the forest fires and road closures, then the atmospheric river flooding,” he explains. “”The grocery stores were running out of eggs, we had eggs. [They] were running out of products like soap or whatever, we had them the whole time.”
“There is this notion that the farmers market is a high end, expensive place, but honestly things like tomatoes or eggs at the market, they cost the same here as they do at the grocery store, or close to it,” he says.
“The difference in the environmental footprint between a farmers market and a grocery store isn’t as big of a difference as you might think,” Unger explains, “but in terms of rising costs of fuel, I think that’s going to change. Because these farmers aren’t travelling as far, and they are not shipping the stuff halfway across the globe.”
A marriage of tradition and innovation
Though markets like these are some of humanity’s most ancient traditions, our local market organizers are not stuck in the past, instead continuing to be a place of innovation and collaboration for local food security.
During the pandemic the Kamloops Farmers’ Market began offering an online shopping option.
“Think of it like a digital version of the physical market,” Unger says. “On the landing page, you can see all of our registered vendors have their own little ‘stalls’ to list their products. Not everyone can get to the market but with the online option you can purchase what you need and arrange pickup or delivery directly with the vendors.” Innovations like this make local food more accessible, which is good for food security.
Starting last year the Kamloops Farmers’ Market partnered with Community Futures Thompson Country to offer a business incubator program.
“The idea is that it’s meant for small food businesses that want to get their foot in the door at the farmers market,” Unger says. “Participants receive resources and support to get their business going.” Supporting emerging producers is a simple way to grow local production capacity.
The CFDC CIFN, which hosts the Kweselken Farm and Artisan market, also offers popular business mentorship workshops for Indigenous entrepreneurs. Susan McMillan, proprietor of Susan’s Sweets & Savories and a regular at the local markets for years now, recently participated in one such workshop.
“Just last week I did a two day Indigenous Women Entrepreneurs workshop,” says McMillan. “It was great and I learned a lot. It is a really approachable way for Indigenous women to build business knowledge and skills.” They go over business plans, registration, promotion, finances, and everything relevant to get going or scale up. “There is a lot of value in that, even for someone like me who has been doing this for a while.”
“My recipes come from the women in my family that came before me, and I am proud to keep that alive,” she says. However packing around her equipment is physically taxing, and she worries that could become a major barrier for her in the future. “During the workshop I developed my plan to expand into a food truck. That way everything can stay in one place, and I can keep doing what I love for a long time.”
Looking forward, together
“We’re doing really well,” Unger says. “This is the biggest year I’ve ever seen for the market. We were at mid summer levels in April, both in terms of vendor attendance and customer attendance. And it’s only been getting bigger and bigger. We’re bursting at the seams. We’re gonna have to expand soon.”
“There’s all these little pieces coming together in Kamloops,” he says. “We have the markets, the Stir, all these programs, it’s exciting. We’re all partnering and working together and we’re here to make our food system more robust.”