Melanie ConsCanadian Farm News

By Lisa McLean for AgInnovation Ontario

Hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables grow in Ontario each year, but many Ontario residents still face barriers to accessing those foods.

Now, an innovative food accessibility program in Guelph, Ont. is making it easier for its community members to buy fresh produce.

The SEED – a community food project that delivers community programs to address food insecurity – offers weekly, affordable fresh food markets with items priced on a sliding price scale.

The markets — running a few hours each week now in two neighbourhoods in Guelph — offer a large selection of fresh fruits and vegetables to residents who may face income, transportation or other barriers to eating well.

“When people come to the market, they choose what they want to pay,” says Becca Clayton, community food markets coordinator at The SEED. “On the reduced end of the scale, we price items as low as we can offer while still covering our costs. The upper value of the scale is retail value. Customers can pay the retail end or the reduced rate, or anything in between — no questions asked.”

Clayton says while a number of communities offer affordable fresh food markets, she believes the sliding scale model is less common.

“Research suggests in sliding scale models for other services, people choose their price point based on their income very accurately. People are generally honest about choosing where their income sits on a sliding scale, and we thought it would make sense for fresh food too,” Clayton says.

She notes in the market’s downtown Guelph location, approximately half of its sales are at the low-end of the sale. The other 50 per cent is sold at mid-to-retail price points.

“That’s exactly the balance we’re looking for,” says Clayton. She notes mixing people from different socioeconomic backgrounds is a unique approach for a food access program, and it helps to achieve a stigma-free environment.

The food sold at the markets comes from a variety of sources. Wherever possible, Clayton says market organizers seek direct relationships with local farmers.

“It’s important to us that we offer good prices for our low-income customers as well as pay farmers fair wages for what they’re growing,” Clayton says. “We have relationships with apple farmers and garlic farmers, and we’re always looking for new connections.”

The markets run on a social enterprise model, where the profits are used to cover staff costs and other operating expenses, such as cold storage and transportation. Whatever is left is reinvested in expansion and improvement of the markets, allowing the project to operate sustainably, with less reliance on grant funding.

The SEED’s programs have been awarded a Transformative Change Award from the Ontario Association of Health Centres.