A three-year-old looks up from his green wagon as it rolls down an aisle between pop-up tables brimming with food – fresh bread, Indian savories, cheese, stuffed tortillas, fruit and apparently popular items called nut burgers. It's a familiar scene in Toronto, where farmers' markets number in the dozens.
Except the kid isn't being pulled through a neighbourhood park. He's in a bank building downtown.
It's the second week of the new "office market" held Thursdays on the ground floor of the ING Direct building on Yonge north of Queen Street.
The point, says Aruna Handa, is to let small food producers bring healthy local nosh to food-court habituated office workers. Compared to outdoor markets, there are more prepared foods that busy suits can eat at their desk or warm up for dinner (with any luck, at home).
Ms. Handa says she was inspired while working at Centre for Social Innovation, where an occasional, tiny pop-up market would appear. She wanted to see it become a larger, more routine phenomenon. Since the fall, Ms. Handa's company, Alimentary Initiatives, has been running pilot markets at two CSI offices and has scheduled an office-market launch in Liberty Village in April. An earlier plan to do the same at the Eaton Centre in June fell through. Together, says Ms. Handa, they are giving cubicle workers a fresh reason to leave their desks at lunchtime, while creating opportunities for small food providers who would otherwise have few outlets to sell their wares.
At the ING Direct building market, primly dressed woman in her twenties approaches a table displaying shucked oysters, fresh trout, smoked whitefish and jars of chowder.
She starts asking questions about where the fish comes from as she reaches to her wallet for a card that lists sustainability rankings for different fisheries.
This is nothing new for Kristin Donovan, part-owner of Hooked, The Knowledgeable Fish Store. Ms. Donovan engages her on standards of virtue for fishmongers. The woman seems interested to hear Ocean Wise has a smartphone app that stays current with declining fish stocks.
Exchanges like this show Ms. Handa these markets benefit those on both sides of the table. If anything, Ms. Handa stresses the supply side of the equation more than the demand. She says the Canadian food industry is too consolidated, with three main grocery chains claiming 80 per cent of distribution. Ms. Handa contends these chains shut out suppliers who can't deliver right across the country. This leaves an underclass of local food producers without shelf space while refrigerated trucks crisscross the continent.
Ms. Handa says she has a waiting list for the eight vendor tables at the ING building, and expects to have 20 vendors at the Eaton Centre market on Fridays when it opens in a few months. She has plans to expand to the suburbs next year and says Phase 2 of the rollout would see markets taking over unused space in subway stations across the city.
The point, she says, is to make eating good, local food convenient.
"You shouldn't have to be a food sleuth to find garlic that doesn't come from China," says Ms. Handa. "So we are putting it just a few steps away."
Whether Chinese garlic is more objectionable because it is low on flavour or high on carbon emissions would probably elicit lively debate here, but most patrons seem to agree that letting food lose its freshness while it crosses an ocean is senseless when there is an alternative close at hand.
Una MacNeil works on the third floor of the ING building. She says she usually packs her own lunch to save money, but now comes bag-free on Thursdays so she can buy from the stalls.
"I like to make my own food so I know what's going in it, but I don't worry as much here. You can taste things better when they haven't been stuffed with preservatives to stay on the shelf. It's like going back to when people would go to the market every day for fresh food."
Speaking of going back, off-the-street customer Ken Jenson, 80 years old, says eating local food gives him an extra sense of satisfaction.
"When I was growing up in Mimico, it was nothing to walk over to De Luca Farms, grab a carrot, spit on it, wipe it on your pants and eat it on the way to school. Kids here today, they don't have that. Maybe this will help us be aware of what we're losing."
Special to The Globe and Mail