Strengthening local food systems: Public markets in Canada as a versatile alternative

In a world increasingly aware of environmental issues and the importance of supporting local economies, farmers’ and public markets in Canada are emerging as key players in the creation of stronger, more resilient food systems. 

These markets, which sometimes strive to operate as alternatives to large commercial retailers, offer a space where local producers can sell their products directly to consumers, while meeting the specific needs of each community they serve and promoting sustainable development.

In our exploration of markets, we distinguish between : 

  1. Farmers’ Markets, centered on direct sales by farmers of their fresh produce, and 
  2. Public Markets, which broaden the offer with a wider range of products – including those from resellers, non-local products and non-food items. They can also be regulated by formal agreements with municipalities, underlining a more structured framework. 

That said, in common language, they are often used interchangeably – and many combine features of both.  Montreal’s Jean-Talon market, for example, historically a farmers’ market for direct sales by local producers, also stands out as a public market, offering a wide range of goods, from imported products to artisanal objects.

In this article, we discuss both types of market, recognizing that they frequently overlap, especially since public markets often include the presence of local vendors.

In North America, public markets (called “farmers’ markets” in the article) are growing fast. In the United States, they jumped from 1,775 in 1994 to 8,687 in 2017. In Canada, there were 508 markets in 2009, with annual growth estimated at between 5% and 7%. (Ubertino, 2019)

These emblematic places, which for generations have set the pace for the life of our communities, are coming back to the spotlight to meet contemporary challenges linked to the environment and the local economy. By offering a space where producers and consumers can directly meet, public markets enable the development of short circuits, from farm to fork, promoting more sustainable and humane sourcing. This revival of public markets reaffirms the key role they play in preserving our cultural traditions, while responding to the challenges facing our society today.

Markets, living examples of agroecology

Agroecology, often considered a holistic approach to agriculture, focuses on creating sustainable, equitable and resilient food systems. At the heart of this philosophy is the recognition of the interconnection between agricultural practices, environmental health and social justice. With this in mind, farmers’ and public markets stand out as obvious points of convergence with the principles of agroecology. By eliminating middlemen and enabling direct exchanges between producers and consumers, these markets strengthen community ties and contribute to a more resilient local economy. This means markets are not just places to sell fresh produce, but can also be concrete expressions of agroecology – illustrating how an environmentally-conscious approach can be integrated into our everyday food systems.

Promoting local connections

One of the key benefits of farmers’ markets is their ability to foster local connections. By bringing together local producers, artisanal workers and small businesses, these dynamic, vibrant spaces help to create a powerful sense of community, and create direct links between those who grow food and those who eat it. This connection strengthens a sense of community and encourages mutual support between local producers and residents. It also gives consumers a better understanding of where their food comes from, how it’s produced and the impact its production has on the environment. The Marché public de Pointe-aux-Trembles is a good example, driven by a fundamental mission: to promote local consumption by creating lasting synergies between citizens, while celebrating the cultural richness of its community. Over the years, this non-profit initiative has become an essential pillar for the neighborhood during the summer months.

Supporting small producers

Public markets also provide an essential platform for small producers who might otherwise find it difficult to access traditional distribution channels. By eliminating intermediaries, these markets enable local producers to benefit directly from the revenues generated by their sales, thereby strengthening their economic viability. By offering a diversity of products often absent from large food chains, farmers’ markets also encourage agricultural diversification and the preservation of local plant and animal varieties, contributing to the preservation of biodiversity. They are at the heart of movements in favor of local agriculture. 

The Afro-Caribbean farmers’ market, for example, offers affordable, ethical, local and organic food products of diasporic cultural origin.  By bringing together a number of small businesses, the market strengthens the capacity of participating enterprises – while also enabling local residents to source from black-owned businesses and encourage the purchase of local produce.

Uprooting systemic racism for food equity

Farmers’ markets can play a vital role not only in supporting small-scale producers, but also in promoting social and racial equity within our communities. 

We see this very clearly in the Deeply Rooted farmers’ market, which, by providing a platform for Black and Indigenous communities to sell products that reflect their cultural heritage, works to combat the systemic structures that have historically limited Black and Indigenous access to traditional distribution channels. 

By recognizing and challenging the deep disparities and inequalities in land ownership and market access in Canada, Deeply Rooted has successfully advanced food sovereignty in the country and circulated money within Black and Indigenous communities – demonstrating the potential of public markets as incredible levers for social change and food justice.

Meeting the diverse needs of communities

Farmers’ markets are flexible and can adapt to the specific needs of each community. Whether it’s showcasing organic produce, offering traditional and culturally relevant foods, or promoting the sale of products that have been grown using sustainable methods, these markets can cater to a variety of food preferences and values. They also often offer food education and awareness programs, enabling consumers to make informed decisions about their diet and health.

According to a May 24, 2023 article in La Presse, there are “significant disparities in access to public markets across the country, underscoring the diversity of food shopping habits and opportunities for culinary exploration in each province.” [Translated freely]

This reality also highlights the persistent challenges associated with food deserts, where limited access to fresh, nutritious food options is often exacerbated. Markets can play a key role in tackling these food deserts and food insecurity by providing local and accessible alternatives, helping to improve the health and well-being of communities while promoting more sustainable food. For this to happen, it is important that the establishment of markets across the country be facilitated.

Strengthening access to fresh food: Community initiatives 

In a context marked by a considerable increase in the cost of groceries and persistent food insecurity, economic access to food represents a challenge for a substantial portion of the Canadian population. In fact, according to 2022 data, nearly 1 in 5 Canadian households were food insecure – with significantly higher rates among Black, Indigenous, and Filipino groups compared to white individuals.

While the structural response to food insecurity is sufficient and adequate income for all, various complementary programs have been deployed across the country in an attempt to promote more equitable access to farmers’ markets and food in general. These initiatives include nutrition coupons, which provide financial support for the purchase of food from local producers. In Nova Scotia, the Nourishing Communities Food Coupon Program, run by the Farmers’ Market Cooperative, helped 585 households in 2022 by providing regular allowances redeemable at farmers’ markets. In British Columbia, the BC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Coupon Program, launched in 2007, now serves over 85 communities and reaches more than 18,000 families, seniors and pregnant women in over 10,000 households. In Quebec, pilot projects like the Carte proximité, launched in 2020, subsidize food purchases for hundreds of people, supporting local farmers’ markets and solidarity markets while improving access to food for over 1,000 households.

Alongside these initiatives, community food markets, such as those organized by the Prince Edward Learning Centre or the Nourish and Develop Foundation‘s mobile food markets in Cannington, as well as the Kiwassa Neighbourhood Services Association‘s weekly affordable market in Vancouver, offer affordable and accessible alternatives for procuring fresh produce in neighbourhoods where food resources may be limited. These markets play a key role in the social fabric of our communities, providing a meeting place and reinforcing access to fresh, local food, regardless of socio-economic status. These initiatives help to alleviate the economic challenges faced by equity-deserving populations, while strengthening links between local producers and communities.

In the many neighborhoods affected by gentrification, where prices are rising and low-income populations are often marginalized, these alternatives play a crucial role in preserving the inclusiveness and socio-economic diversity of markets. In response to the lack of adequate government measures to increase incomes, these community actions embody an innovative and supportive response.


Public markets in Canada offer a promising alternative to large commercial retailers, promoting more local, resilient and sustainable food systems. By supporting small-scale producers, meeting the specific needs of communities and promoting sustainable development, these markets play an essential role in building a food future that is healthier and more just for all.


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