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New Calgary fresh food market allows you to pay what you want

Open Market has a variety of local vendors that will return every week

Open Market’s grand opening on April 27 hosted more than 120 customers. // Lynn Holdsworth

Pay the total, pay less, pay nothing, or pay more—pay anything you want.

Open Market is a new shopping option for Calgarians that follows a pay-what-you-want (PWYW) model.

Similar to other city markets, there is a selection of diverse vendors that list their products with suggested prices.

Customers can choose their prices in an easy and anonymous way.

Open Market’s roots

The market is run by The Social Impact Lab (SIL) and Fresh Routes, which both launched pilot PWYW markets in 2022 and found success using the model.

As both organizations were working towards the same goal, they decided to work together to create change in the community.

James Gamage, who is director of innovation at The Social Impact Lab at United Way of Calgary and Area, says he got involved with the PWYW model when SIL started exploring solutions to food insecurity.

“Back at the start of the pandemic it was really relevant, and it’s still relevant in the city today,” he says.

In 2021, Alberta had the highest rate of food insecurity at 20.3 per cent.

“We wanted to create a solution that offered dignity, access, and choice.”

A missing ingredient

Lourdes Juan, founder and CEO of Fresh Routes, shares the same ideal that no one should have to prove their income to access food.

“This dignified food access that James and I really believe in is about providing choice, not asking questions, and allowing people to access food in the same way we all do,” she says.

“I think that’s one of the key pieces that’s missing in Calgary and in the food system in general.”

Juan became involved with the PWYW model when she saw first hand how families suffer from food insecurity.

The Fresh Routes business model is to deliver affordable food right to customers’ doors, but they discovered that there were times when people couldn’t afford the week’s delivery.

Through community conversations, Fresh Routes declared a PWYW market was the solution they needed.

It’s all about balance

Proponents of this model say it works through balance—a combination of people paying more to support those who pay nothing or less.

Open Market’s research states that the model is not likely to be taken advantage of.

The organizers believe that when customers enter the market, their engagement and connection with the community make them less likely to use the market in a way that is not born of need.

They say that people are actually more likely to pay above the suggested total if they are able to.

Gamage says Open Market’s grand opening on April 27 was a success and they were able to host more than 120 customers.

“The figures that we’re seeing from the first week show a near enough balance to the overall suggested price,” Gamage says.

“We achieved that balance, but it’s still very early days at the moment.”

All the details

Shoppers can find fresh fruit and vegetables, baked goods, soups, eggs, bread, greens, and coffee at a variety of vendors that return each week.

The market can be accessed every Thursday at the Meadowlark Park Community Association from 5 to 8pm, and additional vendors are welcome to join.

As Open Market ventures into its one-year pilot, the organization hopes to find success using the model so that its PWYW market can expand in the future.

“We want to build something that’s scalable,” Juan says.

“We hope to go into other neighbourhoods and my big dream is that we have a brick-and-mortar somewhere… and it just becomes your neighbourhood grocer.”

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