It’s early April and shafts of warming sunlight have finally broken through the cold, grey clouds. Alex Chak emerges from a doorway, squints into the light to let his eyes adjust and then bends down to fill a bushel basket with bright red peppers. A man in a long overcoat, walking quickly, stops in his tracks.
“What is this?” he asks.
“It’s a market, new to the neighbourhood,” replies Mr. Chak, smiling.
“A produce market? That’s amazing, that’s exactly what we need,” he says. “I’ll be back!”
Inside the double-width shipping container a few minutes later, Mr. Chak is busily chatting up a hijab-clad woman as he bags some of those peppers along with a few odd-looking, wrinkly green orbs for her.
“Some of this stuff, I don’t know what it is, I had to Google it,” he laughs, holding up a chayote squash so Lisa Kates and Darcy Higgins can inspect it after the happy, waving woman exits. “But the customers educate me, that’s why I like it here.”
Ms. Kates and Mr. Higgins like that Mr. Chak likes it here. Last summer, the social venture they started in 2013, Building Roots, set up the Moss Park Market near the corner of Seaton Street and Queen Street E. (with the help of container company Storstac and developer Mitchell Cohen of the Daniels Corporation) in order to bring fresh food to what they consider to be a “largely ignored” neighbourhood.
And while the limited-run went well under a different vendor, the newly installed Mr. Chak, owner of Urban Fresh Food Market in Long Branch, brings to the tiny, corrugated, sidewalk outpost a personality as large as the massive high-rises behind him. His love for local produce knows no bounds and his voice echoes in the small space as he enthusiastically makes a point about the local children.
“Teach them to cook,” he says, gesticulating. “Forget about the video games and the cell phones, start cooking; you teach them at a young age to eat healthy. I think that’s the main objective with Darcy and Lisa, too, right, to eat healthy, not junk food.
The duo nod their heads in agreement.
“And some of [the customers], they asked me for chips and soda! You know what I said to them? ‘I’m the wrong guy.’”
Shaking her head in disbelief, Ms. Kates encourages Mr. Chak: “I think people like to have fresh food where they live; sometimes it’s easy to buy a bag of chips, but it’s not easy to buy a bag of carrots.”
It’s true: In many low-income neighbourhoods, it’s the convenience store that’s most convenient. And that’s not good enough for Building Roots, an organization that believes “all neighbourhoods need places to grow, cook, share and buy healthy food.” And while there is a large, discount grocery store a seven-minute walk to the south, the immediate area, Mr. Higgins says, is made up of “seniors and people with disabilities and health issues” who “can’t walk down that far; or in the winter, when sidewalks are full of snow, getting scooters and wheelchairs [through] is too difficult.”
What hasn’t been difficult, they say, is finding worthy projects to pursue, whether those involve setting up a community kitchen in a Toronto Community Housing building so residents can cook together – as they did at 250 Davenport Rd. – or finding a plot of land for a Syrian farmer to grow crops for his new community, which broke ground last summer at the Ashbridges estate in Leslieville.
They’ve also been fortunate in finding partners, such as the City of Toronto, Ryerson University, ERA Architects, Whole Foods, Ozery Bakery, Lanterra Developments and TD Bank. Of course there’s always room for more, since “the city’s growing faster than any city in North America, so if we can plan ahead with incorporating food into developments than we can avoid having food deserts in the future,” says Mr. Higgins, who first became interested in food issues while studying the environment at the University of Waterloo.
To that end, Mr. Higgins suggests that GTA developers looking for ways to enhance resident experience beyond pools and party rooms should contact Building Roots as soon as possible, since food accessibility endeavours not only work best when included at the planning stages, they must be tailored to the specific needs of each neighbourhood. While a permanent market or a community kitchen might work in one area, another might benefit more from a food festival or a workshop on how to start and maintain a vegetable garden.
“And we really believe in it, it’s not a fad for us,” enthuses Ms. Kates, a former caterer who says her focus changed after teaching street kids to cook in Ottawa. “We think people should live like this, they should grow food if they want to.”
Once that food is grown, the pair says they’ll help budding entrepreneurs preserve, bottle and market it so that absolutely nothing goes to waste. And while some of those products will end up on the shelves of Moss Park Market, it’s hoped that they’ll appear in similar markets Building Roots wants set up across the country, or even at the big retailers.
“We just really want to make things happen,” finishes Ms. Kates. “We see this going across Canada, that’s our vision – that’s our huge vision.”