Thinking local, acting loco? -

Thinking local, acting loco?

When a farmer’s market went ‘100 mile,’ vendors of Lebanese pita and Asian fruit saw the dark side of a trend

Thinking local, acting loco?

Photography Cole Garside

The year 2010 marked the moment when the locavore movement went thoroughly mainstream, with even Wal-Mart getting with the program. But while it is invariably promoted under the guise of progressive values of living healthy, building community and preserving the environment, residents of Hamilton recently discovered the dark side of the cult of local.

Like the city itself, the Hamilton Farmers’ Market is a no-nonsense place. Along with the usual stalls of locally grown seasonal produce, it has long featured vendors selling imported foods—Asian fruit, Colombian coffee, Polish baked goods, Lebanese pita, etc.—making the market an unpretentiously cosmopolitan affair.

When the market was closed for renovations in May 2009, vendors were moved to a temporary location and assured they would all get their slots back when it reopens Jan. 21. But in late summer, the city changed its mind, and vendors were given two weeks to apply for re-admission to the renovated space. In mid-November, 23 of them were told their applications had been rejected. Among those given the boot were the owners of Truong’s Produce, a Vietnamese couple who came to Canada as boat people, and Julia Serna, a Colombian immigrant and single mother whose stall sells fair-trade Colombian coffee, sugar, chocolate, and homemade empanadas. Then there was Riad “Ray” Hassan, who has been selling Middle Eastern food at the market for a quarter-century. Another banished vendor was Charlie Chiarelli of Charlie’s Corner Produce. The son of Sicilian immigrants, his family has had a stall at the market for almost 50 years.

The catch was the new Soviet-style application procedure that required vendors to “itemize each particular kind of produce/foodstuff sold, and to write a paragraph on how their business promoted the market and the city of Hamilton.” Priority was given to vendors whose goods are grown using “natural” or organic methods, and produced within a 100-mile radius of the market. That’s right: the Hamilton Farmer’s Market was rebranding, pitching itself at the yuppie constituency that has transformed the traditional farmers’ market into a place where highbrow vendors sell artisanal cheese, boutique lavender, hipster cupcakes, and organic bread.

There is no end of irony in the new system, not least of which is that the 100-mile limit includes farmers in northern Ohio, while anyone east of Peterborough, Ont., may as well be in New Zealand. But it also underscores the cultural xenophobia and hostility to diversity inherent in the locavore movement. As Hassan points out, when he first applied for a spot in 1985, he was welcomed by the market precisely because there was no one else selling Middle Eastern food. Chiarelli tells a similar story. When his parents first opened their stall back in the 1960s, they brought to market Italian products like rapini, persimmons and chestnuts—all considered highly exotic at the time. Now, he says he was told that his application had been rejected because the prices he was charging for his produce were too low, suggesting “a lack of quality.”

City council seemed unprepared for the backlash from outraged customers as well as fellow vendors appalled at how their colleagues were being treated. A group called Friends of the Hamilton Farmers’ Market started up, pushing for an appeals process. On Dec. 20, a “transition subcommittee” met, and when they emerged, nearly all of the excluded vendors were told they would be getting slots after all, shoehorned into a space next to the renovated market.

According to the city, it was all a big misunderstanding over a failure of “process.” But on a more straightforward level, it is about a handful of immigrant small business owners who got steamrolled by the city’s attempt to remake the market into a more fashionably elitist version of itself. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone at city hall that the Hamilton Farmers’ Market is a community where the historic contributions of successive waves of immigrant vendors deeply informs what people understand as “local.”

And where did the push to upscale the Hamilton Farmers’ Market come from in the first place? The answer is found in a 2006 report prepared for the city by Urban Marketing Collaborative, a Toronto-based consultancy that specializes in rebranding farmers’ markets. (It’s the same group that gave Toronto the homage to Jersey Shore aesthetics that is the new Yonge-Dundas Square). In its submission to Hamilton city council, the UMC wrote, “The market needs to be, as it is not now, seen as a ‘cool’ place to go out to be entertained by events, activities, or even just to be seen at.”

The marriage of hipster marketing and yuppie status seeking that drive the Hamilton rethink exposes the essential fraud at the heart of the cult of local. But not everyone fell for it. As one woman said when asked about the push to transform the market, “This is not some hippy heaven down here. This is Hamilton.”


Thinking local, acting loco?

  1. Oh dear Hamilton. Right up there with Arkansas, Belarus and Alberta.

    • Hey before you slam Alberta, visit the St. Alberta farmers market and if you are looking for upscale, have you ever been to the one in the Currie Barracks in Calgary?

      • Currie barracks closed, sadly. Moved so far south that nobody without a vehicle and a half day’s drive to spare can get to it. 

  2. Great quote, lol “This is not some hippy heaven down here. This is Hamilton.”

    There go those darn Toronto "elitists" again!!!

    • It wasn't that along ago Middle Eastern flat breads were considered 'hippy'. Now eating non-exotic vegetables like turnips is? Food snobism takes many forms. I don't think Potter gets that.

  3. There is a major piece of missing information that is relevant to this story: the City of Hamilton did not do this to promote locavorism or any other cultural zeitgeist, they did it because they OK'ed plans for and oversaw the building of a facility that was short 23 stalls and then desperately needed a way to week out vendors.

    The entire application process was a joke: 2 cheese importers were given the go ahead but the only purveyor of locally made cheese was cut out. So, it wasn't really about local/versus import, either.

    As a regular user of this market – we often do not even visit a supermarket for years at a time because we get ALL of our food at the Hamilton Farmer's Market, it is a place where everyone knows my children and I've been visiting many of these vendors for my entire adult life – there are some vegetable sellers who do sell inferior produce, sell bags of rotting fruit and vegetables bought at cut rates from giant international produce warehouses, and sell identical products. I absolutely stand behind giving actual producers from this community, the booths of farmers who grow their foods in this region, a higher priority, over those who buy from the Mississauga warehouse. There are however, sellers who specialize in specific ethnicities that are getting short shrift, however, and that is wrong.

    • Thanks for this Leanne, looks like, as per usual, Potter is misrepresenting the facts to beat on his hobby horse of the locavore movement.

      Here's a hint, Potter: While upscaling may include localizing, localizing has no relation to upscaling.

      So really, the problem isn't that the market went local, it's that the city tried to take it upscale, one aspect of which is a preference for local.

      I mean, I'm talking as if you were unaware of it, but when you get statements like "he was told that his application had been rejected because the prices he was charging for his produce were too low" it seems that even you must have been aware that localization really wasn't the problem. Just a convenient excuse.

  4. The old farmers' market really highlighted what Hamilton is all about. Cultures blending together under one roof (or city name). As a Hamilton citizen who cares for the planet, I do support the locavore movement and there's no reason why we shouldn't support this movement. Unfortunately, Hamilton houses many old school thinkers who just do things without thinking about their environmental impact. I don't think you have to be a hipster/yuppie/elitist to understand why this is a movement that should be supported. What I don't support is the way that Hamilton chose to inform the vendors that would not be able to return. I empathize with the families that have lost their way of living. What a blow to Hamilton's culture.

  5. In response to Leo's comment about the quote at the end of the article, here's the video where said quote was taken from:
    [youtube gmJabRfcnVE youtube]

  6. The government in Hamilton has acted very unfairly to the Farmer's Market tenants. All you have to do is look at the longevity of the St. Lawrence market retailers to understand that a constant presence is important. Giving the merchants of the Hamilton Farmer's market 2 weeks and a whole re-application process is out of bounds. A little like how they dealt with the Tiger Cats ownership group.

  7. I can see both sides clearly. I think the reasoning behind it is a tad bit ridiculous, and the process in which they carried it out is inappropriate and unfair.

    But there is nothing wrong with promoting Canadian farmers. Canada doesn't have much a cuisine, and I think giving people more local options will perhaps limit our obsession and reliance on processed foods and imported foods.

    But choice can't just be controlled by the government. Sure, promote the local side, but there should always be the option to have other foods.

  8. There's something backwards about the conclusions stated in this article.

    I go to farmers markets because I want to avoid toxic food. Usually, food that comes from nearby organic farms doesn't have preservatives and chemicals in it like imported food. I also enjoy interacting with farmers and workers who have just helped harvest their crop. And these folks are the least fashionable or elitist of anyone I've ever met. The places I see the most "yuppies" is in markets where most everything is imported. (An example would be Mario Batali's Eataly in New York City)

    The locavore movement is about health and sustainability. You can't get either with food that comes from a long distance.

    • @ Warren

      Your claim about food that comes from "a long distance" is both fully unscientific (can you even define long distance?), and reeks of neo-tribalism/cultural segregation. Food systems should reflect the cultural diversity of cities, not just false claims of "health" and "sustainability" by consumer elites.

      See Weber & Matthews'for the actual environmental break down on the environmental impact of food production, and the very small role that "food miles" play –

    • That's all well and good, but you deliberately fail to address the part where a lot of fruits and vegetables that we consume are not grown in Canada – in some cases, CAN'T be grown in Canada.

    • Any food that's grown within 100 miles of the Toronto-Hamilton-Mississauga agglomeration has got to be pretty toxic regardless of what the farmers do.

      • Actually, some of the best organic produce in the world, when you look at toxicity levels, and such, is grown in holland marsh, and around the niagra region.

  9. According to the city, it was all a big misunderstanding over a failure of “process.”

    Oh, no, City of Hamilton, we have understood only too well your failure of process.

  10. Can't wait to see the market open .. and hoping that ALL the old vendors will be back, the sad fact is, that some will be left out, good people with a long history with the market, such as Karlik Pastry that has been substituted with a new cupcake out fit .. smart, up scale … "the new image" vendor. So many of us want tobe able to enjoy good old fashioned pastry as we have in the past … why, oh, why did they not get in?? Please speak up and let us get Karlik Pastry back

    • Oh no! No Karlik? Where will I get my plum filled donuts?!

  11. I have known the person who is the Director of the Yonge Street Business Improvement Association and oversaw a lot of the revitalization/renovations on Yonge Street. In 1990, we went to high school together…in Edmonton, a city that is pretty similar to Hamilton in its outlook. While he could be accused of being yuppish, a comparison to Jersey Shore is downright laughable! And the desire of young people to see and be seen existed on that street corner long before my friend took over the BIA and will exist long after he leaves!

  12. Really interesting account of the clashes of several cultures, but I find the story marred by weirdly hostile hyperbole — "Soviet-style application procedure"? "Yuppie cupcakes"? Potter, you're a better writer and finer thinker than this would ever suggest.

  13. Always the same from the yuppie eco nitwits. Long as it doesn't inconvienience them they can trot around town in their BMWs feeling justifed that they are saving the planet. When it's their own "oxe" that get's gored, well that's a horse of a different color. No doubt after throwing those poor buggers into the street they roaded off to sip French wine, dine on Russian caviar and listen to thier hero Al Gore dazzle them with his seminal work of science fiction, "An Inconvienient Truth." Cheers.

    • How is that in any way an appropriate comment for this forum? You have a right to blow off steam but you are insulting a lot of people who may have some of the attributes you cite but not others. I don't think this type of talk is otherwise helpful to anyone, and is only a few paces removed from hate speech. As a prerequisite in a discussion forum, varies parties cited should be spoken of respectfully and the comments should stick to the issues. I'm objecting to grouping people into classes and wholly dismissing them on that basis rather than considering the merits or not of the arguments that they make.


  14. It's sad to see such tragically flawed journalism in what I had thought was a reputable Magazine. This sort of "writing" is more fitting to the Toronto Sun or another tabloid, low brow type publication. The fact that Potter actually refers to the Truongs as "Boat People" sort of set the tone for the whole piece.

  15. Potter cites “cultural xenophobia and hostility to diversity inherent in the locavore movement". I would question this statements validity, and would challenge the writer to back this up with any sort of evidence. Yes, a dedication to eating locally may mean the exclusion of eating Peruvian asparagus in the dead of winter, but this should not be interpreted as a broader geopolitical statement. And the strict application of a 100km radius limits things, but it is the principle, of examining the supply chain, and having a connection to where our food comes from that is the true message behind the movement. When I am in the store, I choose to buy foods that I know their origin, and I understand the impact of my buying decisions.

  16. I can't afford to be yuppie, but i can also appreciate that i WANT, nay, need my son to know where his food comes from, and how we eat what we eat. I want him to know the farmers that grow the food, the fishers who fish our fish and so much more.
    This year, we are trying hard to be conscious about eating sustainable sourced foods, and foods that are grown in BC, processed in BC and (hopefully) we can implement a more zero-mile diet. I just finished reading the 100 mile diet, and it is an inspiring read. I will NOT be doing a strict 100 mile diet, but i will reject peppers from mexico in the dead of winter, i will not be eating the blueberries from chili this week, and I will be growing, canning, preserving more this coming summer. It is more work in the harvest season, but dinners in the winter are easy.

  17. I enjoyed Andrew Potter's excellent article in your January 17, 2011 issue, on the farmer's market incident in Hamilton and was especially pleased to learn how so many parties had pulled together to support each other and attain a happy ending. But just as I was about to put the article down with those thoughts in mind my eye caught a phrase in the last paragraph which was appalling: “the essential fraud at the heart of the cult of local”. How does one process such an outrageous, uncalled for statement, without becoming angry on behalf of the many citizens, whom that statement insults, both those who are part of the local foods movement, who are participating with the goal of making a better world, and those who would benefit from having local food choices among so many other food choices? An editor should have deleted the first two sentences of that paragraph, but perhaps it was an editor who had them inserted. Simply inappropriate, and blatantly political.

  18. I have read this article and the comments posted thus far, and I must say I am quite stunned. I am not familiar with Potters work to offer any type of reference to his style of writing. I did fid this article to be politically biases. It touched upon major issues affecting the whole market process however I found his strong political biases made it difficult to digest. I appreciate the further details offered by others who have replied to this article as mentioned, this article is such a brief descriptor of many issues, and there are many other underlying concerns that may never be able to be proven on paper or documented however the Human Being affected as a result of many blind sighted decisions will be left with its impact for likely the rest of their lives.

    For a city that "struggles with process", to build any type of lasting trust a commitment to actually serve the people who live in the city would have to be made and actions that align with that commitment would have to be made. Better get cracking Hamilton. There is a lot of work to be done.

    To comment on the "local" response I must say the people who have not read documents such as or ones similar, I would strongly recommend it. This is coming from a person -personally seeking out her own sheep farmer at this time. I am pro local- however many of us may have been quick to jump on board with the movement without acknowledging the realities on both sides. So to really take a stand for something like local produce to promote and support local farmers will allow us to connect with one another in a priceless way I would not trade for anything. there is however, enough evidence currently in existence to counter any claims related to "eating local" as having a significant carbon foot print. On that note Potter was harsh by "cult-ifying" the local movement, however if there is anyone out there supporting local strictly in relation to the carbon foot print- and is educated on how small of an impact transportation of produce actually plays, I would consider that strange.

  19. I thought of the same Idea "Perhaps a complimentary venue could be created for non-farmers and resellers, and done in a tasteful way, that promotes ethnic diversity. " I think maybe there is a case of apples and one of oranges in this situation… Some of the Vendors are not the same type of vendors as the others.
    And yeah things do change sometimes! That's just how it is not necessarily good nor bad … maybe just different.

  20. Yeah that too Eric… I thought the article -like a lot of "journalism" i read these days- seems very prima fascia which means it skims the visible surface and not what underlies the apparent issue.
    In fact this article does like you say "demonizes the Conscious Food Movement" which is pretty silly and offensive to me as a longtime sustainability diet advocate and foody who still enjoys some of the imports (who among us would be honestly willing to give up coffee and chocolate completely!). There doesn't have to be an exclusive choice between local and imported food and no one should be forced out of their legal and established lively hood by any organization. That's just wrong there can be nothing worse for a community than displaced citizens who now are lacking their income, except maybe a lack of cultural exposure… looks like this HFM is doing a bit of both here. There certainly must be room for all these foods in our appetite as long as they are healthful and pleasing to us.

  21. Who is a farmers' market for? The first obvious answer inherent in the name is of course the farmer, and if the market offers processed goods like jams and bread, tag on processors as well. What logically follows is that the farmers' market is also for the consumer or eater. Even though most of us do not fall on the production or processing side of food, we certainly still eat, so the farmers' market—in theory—should be for everyone (especially if it is publicly funded as is Hamilton's). What an amazing opportunity for an inclusive public food “hub”.

    Is there anyone a farmers' market is not for? Within the local and organic agenda propagated by the City of Hamilton, the Hamilton Farmers' Market will not be for the over 90,000 Hamiltonians living in poverty—a 2005 figure which has especially risen since the economic downturn. Unironically, these residents are concentrated in the city's downtown core, Ward 2; the neighbourhood with the Hamilton Farmers' Market at its heart.

  22. If you do not believe that less-well-off Hamiltonians living within reach of the poverty line should have the same privilege of shopping at the farmers' market they also help subsidize because they cannot afford it, then consider the growing evidence that the 100-mile diet is not the most favourable environmental choice. With only 11-15% of emissions attributable to food transportation, food miles are a poor indicator of sustainability. Those with an inflexible locavorian subscription should consider the life cycle analyses which debunk the ecological assumptions we've made as a movement about food mileage. James E. McWilliam's new book Just Food offers an elaboration on why we should be more critical of local and organic.

  23. This food dogmatism excludes those eaters and vendors who did not fit into the City's grading matrix privileging local production for 110 out of a possible total of 160 points. Of note is that there are separate line items for “local” and “100-mile” allowing the opportunity for applicants who fall within both to double up—a flawed process indeed as one of the transition subcommittee's city councilors admitted to during the December 16 appeal hearing for rejected vendors. The remaining 50 points are divided between organic and certifications for a collective merit of 20 points, a complete application accounts for 25, and shamefully only 5 points could be earned for previous market experience.

  24. Questions of loyalty to and livelihood for the existing vendors were clearly not priorities; “I am fighting for my livelihood”, was how Charlie Chiarelli began his appeal to the transition subcommittee—and that is exactly what the Hamilton Farmers' Market should be about—the livelihood of ALL eaters and vendors. Charlie buys his produce from local farmers and is able to offer his items at an affordable price for the eater while providing a living income for himself and the farmers he sources from. Rather than rejecting his application on the grounds of “prices that are too low”, the City should be commissioning Charlie to give seminars on his art as he has achieved a workable solution to the constant tug-of-war between affordability for the consumer and income for the farmer.

  25. Is the next step to start to dismantle convenience stores, restaurants, clothing shops, and electronics stores that do not score high enough on the City's local/organic matrix? I do not see that happening anytime soon—so why the double standard? I am not in favour of a market void of local and organic options but rather, one with balance reflecting the diversity of heritages, incomes, and tastes which makes Hamilton the beautiful place it is.

    • Do any of those convenience stores, clothing stores, electronics stores, etc. get put up in a government-run facility at a cut rate at taxpayer expense?

  26. It's a *farmer's* market. Maybe you've never heard of these, but the idea is that a farmer sells their stuff at a Farmer's Market.

    Now, if everything you sell at your booth is just unloaded off an Ontario Food Terminal truck that you buy from, are you a farmer? No. You're a grocery store. We already have those, they're called Fortinos, and they don't need our tax dollars.

    90% of the booths were selling the same produce from the same company, just through different middlemen. I have no interest in seeing public funds go to something like that. Unless there's some demonstratable public good (like there is with connecting local growers *directly* to local buyers) it doesn't need to be done in a subsidized public building.

    These food resellers are perfectly free to buy any number for cheap storefronts available downtown – lord knows we have a lot of dead retail space in Hamilton.

  27. So now Hamilton Farmers' Market is open. Some vendors have cancelled plans to set up in the new location because the necessary finishing, venting, plumbing and electrical capacity that was promised is not in place. Surely $7,000,000 dollars and 2 years of upheaval should have produced a better result than this.