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Calgary’s Farm Stand Program makes fresh produce both accessible and affordable

The number of locations has expanded to more than 30 over the past six years

Anyone who knows Calgarian Karah Schmidtler knows that every Monday night is her night to go out and pick up some fresh produce.

She’s been doing so at local food stands for more than a year.

With the cost of groceries rising, fresh and local produce doesn’t have to cost Calgarians an arm and a leg. 

The Farm Stand Program initially started in 2017 as transit pop-up markets but has since evolved into a place that brings the community together to support local and regional farmers.

Schmidtler said that it’s important to her to keep going to farm stands and supporting local because it shows that there is still a need for it in the community. Schmidtler lives within walking distance of the farm stand in her area and said that she depends on it weekly. 

“It’s nice to have a produce option that’s always here every single week. They’re always consistent and they always have really great produce that I can have in my fridge and not have to spend an arm and a leg for,” said Schmidtler. 

“It’s really important just because it helps to show that there’s still an interest in more affordable markets like this that provide a more affordable option or alternative for families.” 

Calgarian reaches for local produce at Fresh Routes farm stand on Monday, August 14, 2023. ISABELLA WEST / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY.

How is the Farm Stand making a difference? 

The City of Calgary saw a need to provide farmers with access to locations to sell their products within the city. Since LRT stations have such heavy foot traffic, the City thought transit pop-up markets would be the perfect location. 

“The focus of the program [was to place] these farm stands at these high volume commuter points [and] place local food at sort of a very convenient place for patrons to purchase and also provide the regional farms, places to sell,” said Kristi Peters, Sustainability Consultant with Climate and Environment. 

Using ridership statistics, the city worked with transit and vendors to ensure they were set up during the busiest times. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, transit use went down and the Farm Stand Program had to pivot. Because of some of the extra precautions Calgarians took during the pandemic, the demand for a different shopping experience was still high and the Farm Stand Program began to work with community associations. Now, the program has more than 30 locations both with community associations and at transit stations. 

“Residents, since COVID, have really been more and more interested in purchasing local and that could be fueled from the food shortages that we saw during COVID,” said Peters. 

Peters said that a common misconception is that local food is often more expensive. However, after visiting the farm stands personally, she is finding that the prices that farm stands are selling their products for are on par with supermarket prices. 

“It raised a really interesting point about affordability and so something that the program recognized early on, before COVID was, ‘is the local food system affordable for all Calgarians?’” said Peters.

“We’re now seeing that local food is much more on par, the cost of purchasing at a farm stand, is on par with what you would find at the local grocery store.”

Alex Lozowchuk has been a consistent customer at the Farm Stands throughout the city for more than a year. She said that the thing that keeps her coming back is the sense of community, seeing familiar faces and the affordability. 

“It is so innovative and it’s great, especially for people that want produce for a decent price,” said Lozowchuk. 

Lozowchuk said that affordability depends on individuals’ definition of local. She explained that higher-end local goods that are tailored to specific wants and needs, like organic ingredients, are going to be more expensive. 

“People conflate the two between organic and local, and I think we can definitely disentangle that definition,” said Lozowchuk.

“I definitely do enjoy having local and I don’t think it should equal more expensive. I think there’s just that misinterpretation of what it is to be local.”

Local food doesn’t necessarily mean more expensive

Nikita Scringer, Director of Operations for Fresh Routes, said that the biggest challenge they face is people automatically assuming that there is a higher price tag for local produce.  

“Fresh Routes’ whole mission is to provide affordable food. So it kind of made sense for us to be a part of the Farm Stand Program to be able to showcase some of the local vendors that we work with,” said Scringer. 

Fresh Routes sell local produce at their farm stand on Monday, August 14, 2023. ISABELLA WEST / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY.

Scringer said that Fresh Routes farm stand has seen a huge increase in business in the last year.

“Everybody’s kind of feeling the pinch of those higher prices, not just in grocery but gas, cost of living, the housing market. So I think more than ever, people are looking for alternative ways to do their shopping, to get groceries and to save a little money,” said Scringer. 

Dan Berezan, Founder of CultivatR said that when they were starting their business, their prices were more expensive than grocery stores but over time, they’ve been able to match competitive prices.  

“When we look at the food price increases, at CultivatR our prices have only gone up 12.6 per cent over the last three years, whereas traditional grocery is something more along the lines of  32 or 33 per cent,” said Berezan. 

“By supporting local and getting people to build up the local food system, we’ve actually seen a way to slow our food price increases.”

Berezan also pointed out that the big difference between buying from commercialized grocery stores compared to local producers is the knowledge of who you are buying produce from, products have travelled less distance, most are chemical and pesticide free and it’s ultimately investing into the local food system to make it more affordable and sustainable. 

“I think everybody just wants stability, whether it’s the consumer or the farmer and I think that’s what we can do is bridge that gap,” said Berezan.

You can find the nearest Farm Stand location to you by going here.