COLUMN: Buying local, feeling local at farmers' markets

The popularity of Canadian farmers’ markets, such as those in Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody, has risen over the past few years with the growing emphasis on buying local and organic foods. Cooing over babies and beautifully groomed dogs, listening to local musicians and munching on a baked good as you peruse the day’s fruit and vegetable selection is a great way to spend a Sunday morning.

As an intern with Ottawa-based Human Rights Internet, I am currently stationed in Nepal. Visiting the eastern Terai region recently, I had the chance to tag along as two of my Nepali co-workers bought the day’s groceries.

Without refrigerators, visiting the market is a daily chore. Buying directly from farmers is more affordable in Nepal, unlike at Canadian farmers’ markets, where both the quality and the cost are often higher. With a high majority of Nepali households engaged in agriculture, markets spread out in an endless maze: radishes, peanuts, lentils, and cauliflower as far as the eye can see.

Luckily, it is common in Nepal for women to hold each other’s hands or I may have wandered off to inspect a furry coconut and been lost forever. Hand-in-hand with my two co-workers, I wove through a throng of shoppers. No tourists were visible and since locals often mistake half-Chinese Canadians for Nepali citizens, I was able to slip into the market unnoticed — the vegetable spy.

Vendors sat or squatted on mats with their wares spread out in front of them. Iron scales were used to weigh the selections, rocks used for comparison when actual weights were not available. Prices are listed in the daily newspapers so there did not seem to be any bartering.

My young co-workers inspected each product in terms of quality rather than price. My favourite dish, called sag, is made from cooking a variety of different leafy greens with garlic and chilies. Inspecting the pile of spinach-like leaves on a mat, one of my friends picked through it with her fingers, analyzing its freshness. Proving acceptable, it was popped directly into a reusable shopping bag. Into the same bag went potatoes, onions and handfuls of green beans.

While many Canadians bring reusable shopping bags to the market, plastic bags are still used for smaller items such as apples or tomatoes. Are Nepali consumers more environmentally conscious than Canadians?

Environmental degradation is certainly more pronounced in Nepal. Urban centres, especially, are covered in garbage: plastic wrappers, bags, and bottles, some partially burned as locals attempt to mitigate the ever-rising piles of trash by lighting them on fire. As a consequence, the air quality is so poor that most people wear face masks.

Considering that some of my well-educated Nepali friends throw their garbage on the street rather than looking for a trash bin, I would argue that the presence of reusable bags may be a cultural habit rather than a conscious effort to be green. Of course, trash bins are almost as rare in Nepal as the Bengal tiger.

Are Canadian and Nepali farmers’ markets essentially similar or not?

Well, instead of golden retrievers on leashes, there were cows meandering about, red tikka powder staining their white fur as a sign of worship.

In lieu of local buskers serenading shoppers, a nearby shop blared Hindi music as a goat trotted up and down the street in time to the beat.

While Canadian vendors sell fruit in neat little boxes, Nepali squash is sliced open and sold in chunks, to the great appreciation of local flies.

Ultimately, as I mingled with other community members and chatted with sari-clad, barefoot vendors, I felt a sense of neighbourliness that reminded me of home. In Canada, it is the cozy feeling of community that drives me to visit the weekend farmers’ markets, more than the products that I buy.

Perhaps “buy local” can sometimes be eclipsed by the simple need to feel local.

Tanya Lee, 26, grew up in Coquitlam, where she attended Hillcrest middle school and Centennial secondary, and where her family still lives. She’s contributing a column to The Tri-City News about her work with a human rights NGO and maintaining a blog at goneadventurin.wordpress.com.



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