It’s that intense flavour a tomato has when it is picked from a backyard and enjoyed right off the vine, it is the sourness of fresh blueberries, and it is small sweet strawberries in early summer nights as the air gets cooler. The encapsulated memory of enjoying a piece of fruit or vegetable grown in ones own backyard and eaten fresh as possible, adding nothing because it would be sacrilegious to ruin that summer-fresh taste is almost universal. Even the most urbanized person will swear by their window box herb gardens, knowing it tastes better because it came from their hands to the table.
There is a certain pride had in growing one’s own food. Backyard gardens and community gardens provide affirming relationships with fellow foodies, the land, and the self. Knowing the time, and energy, the worry, and care put into the tomato vine, or corn stalks makes them taste that much more delicious. Creating a meal with them for family and friends is that much more satisfying; you are feeding your loved ones with something you created entirely.
For most of our history, we have had to contend with eating what we could produce in the climate and agriculture zone we live in. Cities and larger townships popped up along bodies of water, with which came arable land, fresh water source for drinking and irrigation, and a transportation route. Just 60 years ago, isolated families in rural communities grew the majority of their food, and only bought a few basic ingredients
As our populations became increasingly urbanized, understanding where our food comes from – other than the extensive knowledge everyone in Vancouver has on where to find the cheapest and freshest sushi and the strongest organic Americano – has gone by the wayside. Food of all varieties is bought from large supermarket chains with little consumer research on the company, the strain of seed, the transportation methods used, or the suppliers farming practices. Understanding the roots of your vegetables does seem a little hypocritical as you reach for the bag of GMO’ed grown corn chips covered in artificially flavoured and coloured sodium hydroxide powder.
Find a food fad anywhere, put an ambiguous name on it and see what sticks. The 100-mile diet, eat local, and organic only; these are all lifestyle choices to live in a more sustainable and responsible manner. However, they are by no means a get out of jail free card when it comes to knowing where it is your food comes from.
What you feed yourself has always gone beyond how it affects your body. There is more meaning to food production and consumption than simply the drive to the chain grocery store for a pre-made pizza. Food production sustains communities and it allows rural areas to thrive. It protects the large and beautiful swaths of land in Southern and Central Alberta, Saskatchewan, Southern Manitoba, Interior British Columbia, and PEI from being industrialized. Using this land to produce food for its population is crucial to continuing the knowledge base on how to grow food, and for ensuring our land and our country doesn’t get eaten up by industry, manufacturing, and urbanization, and for continuing a sustainable and self-sustaining community.
The basic principles of eat local are like the basic principles of any lifestyle choice: awareness and information. Eating local, like anything else, should not be about preaching to the unconverted about how much better you are than they are, it is a more holistic approach to understand how your consumption impacts your community and your environment. The reasons are obvious. It provides business directly to your community, it encourages your local shops to have more variety and it encourages big businesses and shopping market chains to carry products from local farms. As well, the environmental impact is huge; less transport equals less emissions. The closer your food is to you, the less preservatives it needs to stay fresh, and the better it is for you and the environment.
Changing your eating habits is not about sacrifice or going without. It is about developing a deeper and more complete understanding of what it is you are contributing to. Eat local basically advocates a lifestyle and consumer choice to buy food that was locally farmed and produced. Farmers markets are perfect examples of this. Worldwide, millions of people shop farmers markets in their urban communities to take advantage of locally grown, fresh produce and locally created, artisan baked goods. Canned goods, local crafts, vintage items, and one of kind specialties are all showcased in these multi-purpose venues – it is simply – a foodie’s wet dream. Specialized cheeses from local farms and colonies can yield some of the best taste experiences you will ever have, and baked goods straight from a local matriarchs oven means fresh bread, incredible cakes, and a memory of being in the kitchen with your grandmother as she makes her signature plum pudding.
This is eating local, simple and easy. To take it one step further, it is easy to talk to the vendors, and stall proprietor about their farms and their produce. Pick up a recipe, learn how to pick the ripest and freshest melon, and gain a greater appreciation for the food you are taking home. That summer tomato plant in your backyard means as much to you as every crop a local farmer pulls in. The bag of yellow peppers you’re holding represents generations of attention and care to the land and to the produce grown. It also represents a choice made by the farmer to continue feeding their community using their land versus growing strictly cash crops that are often modified to be heartier and pesticide free. Some local farms can receive guaranteed government subsidies to protect the farmer from market price drops or crop spoilage. These government subsidies also allow the government to guarantee large companies that there will be a certain amount of raw material for them to convert to the more marketable, and cheaper to make products. This is a practice done specifically with corn in the mid-western United States. Corn is used in almost everything now, as it can be converted to a simple sugar, used as a preservative, and used as filler in almost any pre-produced product you buy. The American subsidizes corn production to an obscene amount, but no other cash crop to the same extent. This encourages poor farmers, whose land has become barren and listless due to poor agricultural practices to pump artificially created fertilizer into their fields to grow the same crop season after season to produce the quota the government is looking for.
It is a consumer responsibility to ensure that sustainable farming practices are encouraged, whether that be from the British Columbia fruit farms, or the farms right outside Lethbridge, Alberta. Eating local doesn’t always mean eating sustainable, but by getting to know your producer or by researching the company you buy from, you can be sure your food is benefiting not just yourself but also the greater community.
Eating local is also about more than just picking your own berries, or frequenting a farmers market. Some smaller urban communities don’t have famers markets available year round, in Lethbridge for instance, the farmers’ market only runs during the summer – when the student population sadly isn’t around. However, by being mindful of the negative repercussions of consumerism, the consumer can work to pressure their big business supermarket to carry local produce. James MacKinnon, a c0-creator of Vancouver’s “100-Day, 100-Mile Diet” challenge, and a passionate advocate for urban food production, and land reclamation acknowledges the challenges to eating locally.
“Still, there are positive things that the big chains might bring to the local table. They could help pressure governments to make the policy changes necessary to make smaller, more diverse farms affordable and competitive. They could help make more sustainable foods more affordable for more people. And going local could change the chains themselves – when more of their products are coming from close to home, they may find themselves more susceptible to citizen pressure for better environmental, social, and health standards. They won’t be able to depend on our ignorance of what kinds of farming they are supporting in distant corners of the globe,” says James.
Essentially, eating locally is about more than just eating food produced within a 100 mile radius. It is about being aware and using your consumer power for good. Walking to a local supermarket and purchasing locally grown products makes the Canadian dollar more powerful. It increases consumer viability and the impact is greater than the wicked delicious meal you will create. It benefits your local community, supports sustainable farming practices, and protects the environment. It shows big business and our governments that you are aware, as a community member and a consumer, of where your dollar goes, and that you dictate how it is spent. It is empowering for you as an individual and for your community.
Eat local, but eat smart.