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Stands with food and goods in the SCC. Students are wandering around within the market
Courtesy of Mutual Market
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Students lead the Mutual Market on campus to combat food insecurity

By Yumna Kamran

Maria Jude said she noticed students were struggling to afford food and clothing during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There was a dire need for food support for students…I had friends and colleagues that relied heavily on donations to be able to clothe themselves and that’s how dire the poverty really was,” said Jude, who graduated from the nutrition and food program in 2020.

This led her—along with the efforts of two other Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) students Serge Khvatov and Asha Simpson—to establish what has now become the Mutual Market.

It is a student-led, non-profit market fair held every other Wednesday in the Student Campus Centre (SCC) lobby during the winter time and outside when the weather is warm. 

Students can purchase fresh produce, multicultural lunch items and second-hand clothing at no markup. It also has open mics for willing participants and provides a space for student vendors, musicians and artists. 

“[The Mutual Market] is a grassroots project meaning it is people coming together to solve problems in their community from the bottom up,” said Khvatov, a third-year history student and the market’s current organizer.

The project initially began in the fall of 2021, when Jude launched a food pantry at Neill Wycik—a student housing co-operative—that was a space to pick up free food and essentials. This was funded by a budget that was already allocated by the building.

Jude used the budget to buy food from Food Share, an organization that supports community-led food initiatives. “Once a week I would put out food, fruits, vegetables, essentials and set up a fridge,” she said.

In winter 2022, Jude and Simpson set up clothing racks outside the SCC building and started giving out the second-hand clothing donations they received from Neill Wycik. 

She said they aimed to keep the initiative as equitable as possible and had a sign that said “Keep what you need, leave what you don’t.” 

“We acknowledged the fact that many people struggle to not only pay for food but to pay for clothing as a result,” said Jude.

The project then branched out into what is now known as the Mutual Market. 

Khvatov said the Yonge-Dundas Square area has a lot of food options but they aren’t affordable—with some meals costing around $15 minimum. “The cost adds up,” Khvatov said. “To the best of our ability, our aim is to fight student food insecurity and provide students with more good quality, affordable grocery and lunch food options in the Dundas area.”

Khvatov also works at Karma Co-Op, a grocery store that specializes in providing organic, local, fair trade and zero waste products to consumers. As a staff member, Khvatov is able to purchase the goods at a 25 per cent discount and sell them at that same price at the Mutual Market. 

“In the market fair, we sell organic, local, sustainably harvested produce and if it isn’t local—like the bananas—we do a lot of due diligence to make sure they come from ethical and sustainable sources.”

“There was a dire need for food support for students”

According to Jude, the long-term goal of the Mutual Market has always been to establish a food cooperative at TMU inspired by the one at Concordia University in Montreal. The Concordia Farmer’s Market was a student project founded in 2014, which is now overseen by the Concordia Food Coalition, an on-campus organization whose goal is to create accessible and democratic food systems. The market runs every other week and its goal is to facilitate access to fresh, local foods while empowering students to be “the leaders of food system amelioration.”

 “We want to have a permanent space that sells affordable food and essentials to students that is run by students but funded by the student levy,” said Jude. “A permanent space where people can hang out, study, read, lounge, grab a snack.” 

However, the Mutual Market’s leaders face many challenges in organizing the bi-weekly event, including a lack of funding from the university as well as a lack of volunteers.

Currently, the market’s organizers use the money they earn from sales combined with their own personal investments to fund the initiative. It is entirely non-profit and the money that is made goes back into funding their future events. When the market first started, Khvatov said they applied for the Student Initiative Fund (SIF)—which provides seed funding to TMU student-led non-profit initiatives—and were supposed to receive it. However, the market did not get funding, Khvatov said.

Recently, the Mutual Market was given funding from the Toronto Metropolitan Association of Part-time Students (TMAPS), who Khvatov said are the market’s main supporters at the moment. They added that the Mutual Market has not yet reached the break-even point, so the team behind it requires more funding in order to continue to host more community-building events. 

Khvatov is currently the sole organizer of the event and is also looking for more hands to help out. “When we started the event there were three main organizers and now it’s just me,” Khvatov said. “We’re looking for more volunteers and organizers because I am overwhelmed with all the tasks. I’m sure there are people out there with really great ideas that are not being used.”

Jacqui Gingras, a sociology professor at TMU, said she appreciates the efforts of the students running the market and feels it has numerous benefits for TMU students.

“The Mutual Market helps to build community connections. There’s something very powerful but seemingly very simple that happens when two students talk, introduce themselves to each other and form a connection,” she said. “It helps promote mental wellness as well.” 

Gingras is the market’s faculty representative for the SIF but is not directly involved in the organization of the market. 

“It’s a phenomenal movement but institutional support is needed for this initiative to be sustainable because eventually Serge will graduate,” she said. “It only takes the will of one leader to help make this sustainable.”

Jude also pointed out the need for student-led initiatives like the Mutual Market.

Khvatov added that they wanted to create a feeling of community on campus.

“[The Mutual Market] shows students that they have agency and by working together, they can transform the conditions under which they live.”

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