Farmers’ markets will be allowed to continue, but will be limited to food sales only, according to a public health order last week. (File photo)

Column: Good food at farmers’ markets an essential service during pandemic

Local resilience and sustainability are the only lifeline, says columnist


An exponentially reproducing virus has disrupted the tangle of complex global systems in which we are trapped. Enforced dislocation from the daily grind reveals our capacity for neighbourliness, the quality most needed to resist a pandemic and also the quality most needed to replace vulnerable global systems for energy, food, manufacturing, distribution and finance.

Local resilience and sustainability are no longer abstractions for academics and futurists, they are the only lifeline, right here at home, where we live and have to look each other in the eye.

My farmers’ market is like the street down the road from our city house. I could go from shop to shop with my mother’s list: the grocer’s, the fishmonger’s, the ironmonger’s (hardware), the chemist’s (pharmacy), the bakery. The only distant products were goods that we could not produce locally: diamonds, oranges, certain textiles. The city of two million was ringed by farms and there was a manufacturing sector where apprentice-trained craftsmen worked.

When my husband stopped gardening, farmers’ market vendors provided me with fresh vegetables and fruits in season and eggs, fish and meat for protein, unadulterated. The canneries, flour mills and mixed farms were gone, but my farmers’ market was my new lifeline, heralding the return of local food. I only had to source some staples and non-essentials at the supermarkets.

Local sustainability and local sovereignty over necessities is the only answer to over-dependence on over-extended supply chains. Neoliberal economic policies were based on a concept of efficiency that has been cutting services and incomes and stealing people’s time for inadequate wages. Supplies were curtailed so that as goods entered businesses they moved right through in sales, leaving no need for stores. No slack was left in systems in case of major emergencies.

Public education has been decimated. Health services are cut to the bone without the slack to cope with needs or provide employees with reasonable working conditions. Welfare rates did not keep up with costs of housing. Homelessness appeared out of the ‘efficiency’ of these inadequate systems.

I was infuriated by the double standards applied to close our farmers’ markets while naming supermarkets an essential service. Better food is an essential service and an outdoor market provides the added benefits of increased airflow, reduced aerosol contamination and ultraviolet to reduce virus viability. The vendors at our farmers’ markets deserve our support. We can trust them to meet the same standards as supermarkets and we need them to flourish.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced a public health order last week, limiting community markets and farmers’ markets to food sales only.

I want our municipalities and local authorities to protect our farmers’ markets, take their lead from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, and prepare for the future.

In the words of Thomas Homer Dixon this is an “urgently needed tipping event in humanity’s collective moral values, priorities and sense of self and community.”

Let’s not blow it. Getting back our farmers’ markets can help free us from the tyranny of corporate globalization.

READ ALSO: B.C. farmers markets restricted to food sales only due to COVID-19

Marjorie Stewart is past chairwoman of Nanaimo Foodshare. She can be reached at

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