There is a movement to strengthen local food systems in Toronto, and the Junction Farmers Market (JFM) in west end Toronto has a share in it. The JFM believes that healthy, local, and sustainable food should be available to all regardless of finances, race, age, or gender and where financial barriers exist, our Share the Harvest Market Dollars support an inclusive market for all.
Originally known as the Voucher Program, this initiative was launched in 2012 after board members recognized the need for an inclusive farmers market. Former board member Katie Hortobagyi worked as a dietician at a local Community Health Centre and understood the challenge that farmers market food was not within her clients’ household food budgets. With a $4,000 grant from the Audrey S. Hellyer Charitable Foundation, the JFM launched a program where printed voucher ‘market dollars’ were distributed by the Community Health Centre to households in need. Recipients use these dollars at the JFM to purchase food of their choice. This empowering program has helped families and individuals fill their shopping bags with delicious farmers market foods for almost a decade! In 2021 we changed our name from the Voucher Program to Share the Harvest to remind our patrons and program supporters that healthy food is more than just eating, it also includes neighbourly support, being a voice for those in need, and sharing abundance.
Here is how our program works!
- Our community partners share Market Dollars with identified food insecure households
- Market Dollars are also used to thank our spectacular volunteers, musicians and other market contributors
- These Market Dollars are used at the JFM weekly Saturday markets to purchase fruit, vegetables, cheese, baked goods and more from our vendors.
- The program is funded through annual proceeds, community donations and our Night Market fundraiser
Sharing our harvest successes
As awareness of the voucher program grew through our first few years, so did our community outreach. New partnerships and friendships were made, and we were inspired to share our market dollars with as many community members in need as possible. For the voucher program to expand further we recognized that a serious and reliable source of income was needed. In 2013, the JFM initiated another important project, our annual Night Market. The Night Market brings together the Junction’s artists and musicians, who are mainly paid through the market voucher program as well as food and drink vendors in an evening that recognizes and thanks our community partners and raises funds for our program. At The Night Market guests purchased $5 tokens and exchanged them for a small food and drink item from the vendors. A percentage of token sales, vendor fees and selling JFM merchandise earned $2,400 towards funding the program in our first year. The Night Market grew in size and popularity and six years later, in 2019, we raised over $20,000! In 2020 and 2021 we were unable to hold a Night Market, due to COVID-19, but we continued to provide fresh produce to people through Community Health Centres and other community partners, thanks to the continued generous donations of our patrons and our reserve funds. In 2021, we have donated $7,000 helping 140 households!
Running a weekly farmers market while coordinating Share the Harvest requires teamwork and organization. The board meets on Zoom once a month to discuss agenda items and assign tasks. Clear communication is needed when working with a large group of board members, volunteers, vendors and community partners. A sub-committee for Share the Harvest has also been formed where we discuss specific action items. In this committee, we brainstorm and make decisions about Share the Harvest and report back to the larger board at a later date. We have also found referencing our strategic plan is a great way to keep us motivated and remind us of ways to meet goals on sustainability, community and promotion of healthy food.
Sharing our program challenges and solutions
Social assistance programs are not always adequate to meet basic household food needs. Share the Harvest is an effort to supplement this system in our own neighbourhood. Food security in our neighbourhood has become a growing need and we understood these challenges, particularly as COVID-19 left many people unemployed, underemployed or with significant lost income. To stretch food budgets, cheaper processed foods may be chosen over local fresh foods. Responding to this, we quickly changed our market model so we could continue offering our vendors’ products. In place of using in-person market dollars, we introduced pre-bagged selections with the vendors best picks of the week for pickup and deliveries. Home delivery was something new added in 2020 when several board members volunteered to deliver the bags to people unable to come to the market in person for various reasons. Our vendors contributed by providing delicious in-season fruit and vegetables which we bought weekly using donations and other allocated funds. If we had extra fruit and vegetable bags at the close of the market, they were donated to a local women’s shelter, a drop-in centre for homeless women or a home supporting refugees in our community. Everything went to people who could use it.
We have gained insights into the program by surveying community members and asked how they use the program and what changes they’d like to see. We also realized that cooking and eating some of the fruit and vegetables we sell are not culturally familiar for some of our community members. Through the help of board members and volunteers we will soon be providing recipe cards, translated into the languages of our community, to help with these unfamiliar foods. While Share the Harvest assists with weekly food spends, if the products aren’t helpful in kitchens, then the program won’t be successful.
Toronto’s climate also means finding local fresh harvest producers can be difficult after the fall. We are limited to helping those in need over the winter as our farmers market closes at the end of October and we aren’t set up for selling or distributing food over the winter – but we wish we could! Instead, in winter months we plan ways to grow the program’s capacity and review our role in food security solutions.
Each project is a learning opportunity and running Share the Harvest for 9 years has certainly helped us gain insights into how teams work, processes develop and continually adapt to changing needs. We have used these lessons to create better teams, implement changes that work, and deliver a more successful program. We have primarily seen how a need from the community can be addressed through generosity, resourcefulness, and commitment.
Creating a long-standing partnership with community health centres and food rescue initiatives have helped us focus on specific needs and identification of those who would benefit most from using market dollars. Working with community partners also offers a new perspective and insights into the barriers and opportunities that exist for strengthening local food systems.
By asking questions and actively listening, we are reminded that some households may not have access to shared spaces with fridges or kitchens and others only have access to a microwave. Newcomers to Canada and those shopping with children may also face difficulties shopping for food. 2020 reminded us of the physical and mental health barriers some people faced to reach farmers market in person, and so we made sure to work closely with our partners to prepare the right number of packaged foods, and strengthen the program for the future, including making limited home deliveries.
Fundraising, Grants and Donations
Share the Harvest relies on charitable funds, and we are limited only by the amount we receive or fundraise. While a grant provided the funds to start the program, introducing the annual Night Market has allowed us to better forecast revenues for the program and donations to other local food security programs. The Night Market also allowed us to place funds in reserve for future needs, which we used to maintain the program during 2020 and 2021.
Rebranding as Share the Harvest and creating an online donation page were two communication strategies implemented in 2021 that have specifically helped us reach our goals. Having an easy to find donation page on our www.junctionmarket.ca homepage meant we could promote donation campaigns and communicate a distinct “donate now” call to action. We found that once we asked for support from the community, people felt more engaged, involved, and educated about our endeavors, and more willing to give.
The JFM regularly uses newsletters, social media (particularly Instagram posts and stories), as well as community posters and event listings to share updates about our farmers’ market. With a short market season, various forms of media help us deliver information to various demographics, such as updates on pop-up vendors and COVID-19 safety protocols.
Future Shared Harvests
We are proud that the JFM has become a vibrant part of the Junction community. We are continually encouraged by the care of our patrons, farmers, and volunteers and thankful for the vibrant market space they create to meet up, socialize and grow. Share the Harvest is an extension of this mutual aid and friendship seen each week.
We hope in the future to partner with other farmers markets in Ontario and build a network of food share programs. Ideally, we would like to introduce a preloaded debit card where patrons can use their market dollars across the province (or initially at JFM) and normalize payment methods away from our own printed money.
Our first Night Market held post COVID-19 will be a great celebration to recognize our new program name and thank the community that has supported us through a challenging few years. We look forward to our next Night Market and continuing to invest in our community elders, newcomers, single parent households, and those who despite tough times can use their Market Dollars to shop and cook nutritious foods for themselves and loved ones.