A sustainable food system in the North serves ‘people, the planet, and profit,’ and producing local food is integral to this goal (6, 36–39). As future shocks are expected due to climate stressors, this discussion considers the research on online food spaces within the context of building a resilient, sustainable food system while considering the current place-based barriers for the YKFM. The decision of the YKFM not to pursue an online market model will be explored alongside the broader goals of the YKFM to contribute to a socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable food system.
Connections: Social Sustainability
The face-to-face interactions and tactile connection to the food are celebrated with farmers’ markets broadly, with literature describing patrons’ market experiences as much more than a ‘grocery trip’ but a meaningful leisure experience and opportunity to build connections (3, 24, 25). As remarked by Martin, “farmers markets are about conversations and relationships” (3) (p168). True to the reputation of farmers’ markets, the surveyed YKFM patrons valued local, community-grown food and products, appreciated the atmosphere, and spent their time eating dinner and talking together. The YKFM board takes care to offer an inviting space with local musicians, dinner options, picnic tables, and a view of the lake. As previously mentioned, nearly a fifth of the surveyed patrons did not come to purchase anything at all. The high priority placed on the atmosphere and eating a meal with their community sets YKFM apart from other markets across Canada where patrons attend primarily for freshness and local foods and only 2% attend for the dining options (34). The decision of the YKFM to not pursue an online market reflects the market’s distinct features as a space to connect as a community and enjoy dinner within an event-like atmosphere, all of which would be threatened using an online model. However, the COVID-19 pandemic means that the market will need to shift away from being this vibrant community space to one that supports physical distancing between participants. While the market may preserve some face-to-face interaction using an in-person physically distanced model, the features of the market that encourage patrons to stay and enjoy their food together will be necessarily disrupted. Furthermore, without an online space to explore, network and learn about products, the connection and engagement with the local products and community may be threatened.
At the heart of farmers’ markets role in a sustainable food system is their ability to foster engagement with food production and build a “civic agriculture” or deep sense of connection and social responsibility (10, 13, 23). The transition to online markets may connect patrons to local foods and foster community around ethical consumption; however, a simple online store with individual pick-up would likely not constitute an authentic virtual community that engages food citizens (11, 20, 25). For markets facing crises like COVID-19, however, online markets may help to efficiently connect patrons and consumers to limit physical contact and time in public spaces while informing them of the product options and sources. Even without an online option for purchasing, building upon existing interactive online communities using social media or other platforms, markets like the YKFM can build community growing and food skills, knowledge, connections, and resilience during system shocks like COVID-19 that can leverage urban growing spaces and nurture self-determination and reliance (11, 12, 21, 24). In addition, these networks can expand beyond the boundaries of Yellowknife to benefit, connect, and inform communities and food producers to support Northern self-reliance.
Online platforms do not need to exist in isolation. Between crises that limit travel such as extreme storms, wildfires or pandemics, in-person connections and communities can reinforce online spaces for a shared knowledge network that can foster adaptations that align with Northern values and food security needs such as food sharing and more equitable food distribution (11, 24, 25, 37). While the YKFM functions largely at a small urban scale, their ability to scale up to facilitate food access and connections with patrons and vendors in nearby rural areas may depend on building accessible virtual spaces. Remote, primarily Indigenous populations, with some of the highest food insecurity, may choose to purchase healthy local foods remotely, but this appears unlikely without an online space facilitating the ability to view and confirm products before traveling hours to pick-up (6, 37). Thus, online markets that temporarily (or permanently) replace or complement the traditional in-person marketplace have the potential to expand access to some populations where necessary infrastructure exists. In Northern Canada, the lack of reliable rural internet and electrical systems are real barriers that contribute to the inequitable distribution of the benefits of both online communities and access to local foods in an online marketplace (11, 23, 37). With the expectation of increased production and support for building a local food system from the Government of the NWT in the future, infrastructure investments to increase electrical and internet capacity may help address these concerns before the next system shock occurs (38).
Building the Local Food System: Economic Sustainability
Farmers markets in the North like YKFM are critical for nurturing small food enterprise for the intertwined sustainability goals of nourishing health and self-reliance, ecologically sound approaches, and local economies. While growing and producing more food in the North is a concrete goal of local and territorial food strategies, it is also a business strategy in the North (27, 38, 40). The concerns of YKFM regarding meeting potential online demand for vegetables and requests from patrons for more fresh produce demonstrate the current limited local production. Northern communities, including patrons of the YKFM, support and value locally-grown produce (41), however, building a commercially viable food business is a challenge in the North, however, due to limited subsidy of small operations, competition with subsidized imported foods, and limited suitable land and soil (1, 6, 41). For the YKFM, the online model was dismissed as being more appropriate for larger and more stable markets such as those in southern Canada. As structural and financial supports grow in the NWT with support from the government, this may no longer be a barrier in the future. During a crisis that limits in-person interaction and disrupts transportation, online markets may sustain the connection to local food, increased access to fresh fruit and vegetables, and sustain emerging commercial producers.
Mechanisms that sustain market organizations and food networks during crises can increase the chances that these networks will be operational to support social entrepreneurs as communities recover from shocks. In post-Katrina New Orleans, online markets permitted sale of urban-cultivated small crops and products to provide economic benefit to the producer and community as well as increase access to local options (42). Online markets and communities can also foster a more social entrepreneurship and ethical consumption by sustaining micro-farms that may otherwise not have distribution networks (38). The small scale of the YKFM has, however, limited its perceived ability to expand or pivot into an online marketplace. However, using existing online tools during system shocks like COVID-19, such as the YKFM website or social media accounts that are supporting home gardening, may also assist small upcoming commercial growers and producers.
Growing within Planetary Boundaries: Environmental Sustainability.
When distribution and harvesting is disrupted due to climate change impacts and crises, online markets have the potential to sustain availability of fruits and vegetables, which is essential for improved health from the individual to planetary level (4). Food sovereignty and local resilience depend on local food harvests and production, and environmental sustainability will depend on knowledge-sharing of growing methods that reduce land-clearing and environmental impacts (2, 4, 37, 38, 43). The YKFM has worked to promote ecologically sustainable practices directly through the Yellowknife Food Charter, urban growing initiatives, as well as through the composting program at their events, which also produces soil needed to support local food growing (1, 38–40). Online communities can also be considered alongside the physically-distanced marketplace of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic to build a community around shared ethics and beliefs that can support increasing use of sustainable growing practices(11, 24, 25). Although discussed last here, building a community and momentum towards ecologically-supportive agriculture cannot be an afterthought; it is key to achieving the dual goals of a new local food industry and sustainable development to mitigate and adapt to climate change and nurture human and animal life for generations to come (1, 2, 4, 39). Thus, while the YKFM proposes to shift to a physically-distanced market to connect farmers and consumers, the need for community building online or offline must remain a priority.
These data reflect a small case study based on a collaborative evaluation. While the collection of patron data in-place is a strength to mitigate recall bias, the data must be considered as a snapshot of patrons in the context of previous surveys, board member conversations, observations and published reports and literature. Even as a case study, the responses in the questionnaire largely aligned with findings from literature and surveys in Yellowknife and surrounding Northern regions. Furthermore, the survey represented the most recent available data regarding the YKFM to inform a place-based discussion regarding the potential for online marketplaces as adaptations to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Future exploration into the role of virtual spaces in fostering sustainable food systems in the NWT is warranted.