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.”

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