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This pay-what-you-want open market is making fresh food more accessible

The pop-market in Meadowlark Park offers fresh produce sourced from local vendors in Calgary. (Tim Chen - image credit)
The pop-market in Meadowlark Park offers fresh produce sourced from local vendors in Calgary. (Tim Chen - image credit)

Every Thursday evening, Calgarians will be able to head to a new pop-up market in the southwest that operates with a simple mantra — to make high-quality food more accessible to those in need.

The Open Market, an initiative launched by Fresh Routes and The Social Impact Lab, allows visitors to pay as little or as much as they like for fresh produce sourced from local vendors in Calgary.

"It's open to everyone, but the catch is that or the surprise, I guess, is that it's all pay what you want, so all of the prices are suggested," said Lourdes Juan, founder of Fresh Routes, in an interview on the Calgary Eyeopener.

Juan says the organizations decided to team up after they had an epiphany — all of them were interested in promoting pay-what-you-want models and realized they could do a lot more for the community if they worked together.

The United Way of Calgary and Area is funding the Open Market, which is expected to run every Thursday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. this year.

"It started because we were hearing from [the] community that it was hard to access healthy food," said Juan, noting the biggest barriers for many families are limited finances and higher grocery prices.

According to the entrepreneur, some of the hardest-hit are families who have "precarious work" and are struggling to put healthy food on the table.

"I think it's important, you know, to have all of these different types of [grocery] options for folks," said Juan.

The Open Market at Meadowlark Park Community Association has been designed to look like a regular farmers' market. It is meant to feel inclusive and welcoming to visitors from varied backgrounds.

LISTEN | Lourdes Juan talks about the pop-up market:

All food items at the market — including fruits, vegetables, baked goods, eggs, coffee, bread and more — are marked with "suggested" rates. That means a visitor can choose to pay nothing, contribute as much as they can afford or support the initiative by paying a little extra.

"What we want to do is create experiences," said James Gamage, director of the Social Impact Lab for the United Way of Calgary and Area.

Gamage reiterated that the team wants to keep things "as normal as possible" for visitors, especially those dealing with uncertainty and food insecurity.

He added that the team has been lucky in finding enthusiastic volunteers who have worked hard to create a friendly atmosphere at the pop-up market.

Tim Chen
Tim Chen

"The people of Calgary are very generous with their time and understand food insecurity," said Gamage.

The pop-up market, which has been running for two weeks, has hosted hundreds of visitors so far.

Gamage recalled a memorable incident from a previous event, describing a harried woman who rushed to the market a minute before closing time, unsure of what to expect.

The woman eventually left the market with a box filled with apples and paid what she could afford. She and her husband were unemployed at the time.

"My kids are going to shower in apples [tonight]," she said.

While the future is uncertain, the team hopes to continue hosting more open markets after the first year.

"With this pilot, we're really trying to, you know, figure out how this can be sustainable after a year," said Juan. "And so we're grabbing all of our data points and seeing, you know, how we can get people from all different walks of life to come and shop at the market so that we meet that balance."