Sustainability: Local Food

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The topic of sustainability can be overwhelming. It’s easy to get tangled up in big ideas, and overwhelming concepts. Trying to live a greener life, with less waste, is tough. Consumerism says more is better. Debt is encouraged to fuel production, to keep the economy functioning. We have already heard about how much we will all need to spend in order to kickstart the economy after the pandemic. Our lives revolve around a culture of disposable products. Consumables. Fast fashion. Products that cost more to fix than to replace. If you want to change something, where do you start?

Maybe start with food. We all need to eat. Catch phrases, like locavore and 100 Mile Diet, popped up several years ago. The idea behind 100 Mile Diet is that you source your food from within a hundred miles of your home. And that doesn’t mean having a Loblaws within a hundred miles! Locavore is a trendy way to say that you value local food and go out of your way to source it. Our society has become used to being able to get anything we want to eat, at any time of year, such as tomatoes and asparagus in January. Or to get foods that we could never grow here with our short season and cold winters, like avocados, mangoes, and oranges.

Focusing on local food represents a huge shift in thinking, and then following up the shift in thinking with a conscious change in behaviour. Living in Eastern Ontario requires a very conscious shift in thinking if you want to prioritise local food. No one expects you to wander outside in January and stumble upon an apple, a head of lettuce, or a potato.

Why do we care about where our food comes from? Why care when we can work, make money, drive to a supermarket, buy whatever we want (or what we can afford), go home, and make whatever we want. Well, there are a lot of reasons. Supply chains aren’t always secure. Think of all the weird things that seemed to vanish off store shelves as the pandemic progressed. One break in the supply chain, one factory, plant, greenhouse, or distribution hub closes down, and we’re scrambling to find things we never thought we would miss.

The pandemic has shone the light on some of the biggest issues around supply chains and the need to look for local sources. When people got scared, they bought things in a panic, often creating a perceived shortage of some product (think toilet paper!). When it was time to harvest fruit and vegetables in southern Ontario, but the people from other countries who we rely on to pick the food either couldn’t get to Canada, or were quarantined, food rotted in the fields and in the trees.

Another reason to care is the environment. Crops grown in California and destined for the North American market are often the foods that take a huge amount of water, such as almonds or avocados. California imports water to satisfy our demand for avocados and almond milk. Trucks, boats, planes, trains, transport food all over the world. Our February lettuce travels across a continent, using massive amounts of fossil fuels and creating huge amounts of pollution.

Another reason to care is taste and nutrition. Tomato varieties, over the years, have been designed to withstand travel rather than to taste good. There is more vitamin C in a tomato from your garden, or the farmers market, than in the one picked green several days ago. Once you start tasting real tomatoes from local gardens in August, you won’t be happy with the rock-hard January offerings. A well-known gardening YouTuber, Jessica Sowards, says that a winter tomato tastes like disappointment.

Changing the way we think about food makes us think about how things grow, as well as when and where they grow. It requires us to learn about what actually grows in our area, and when. Asparagus grows very well in this region, but not in September. Turnips store well over the winter, but you have to know how to store them. It means planning meals around what is in season, or what you can buy in winter that didn’t travel across the continent. It takes some education.

It’s not a matter of just individual choice, although consumers do have power to influence suppliers with their purchasing power. The majority of our current food chain is based on the belief that we need avocados in January. If consumers believe that, suppliers will do their best to fulfil that demand. Even the foods that we do grow locally, that can overwinter with a bit of effort, often come from across the continent, rather than from our own province. Carrots, turnips, potatoes, rutabagas, cabbages, amongst others, can all grow plentifully and affordably in Ontario, and stay viable through the winter. Nevertheless, our food chain relies on imported food rather than locally grown.

Local food needs to be accessible. Not everyone has a garden to grow carrots, or a cellar to store them. Growing food takes land, and land is expensive. Growing food takes knowledge. A lot of knowledge, about how to grow and store local food, has left with the people when they packed up their small acreages and moved to the cities. People who have the knowledge need to teach those who don’t know. Food can be grown in cities and towns. The irony is that we are living with so many thousands of acres of agricultural land around, yet we lack access to land on which to grow food.

I keep talking about vegetables. Our need to seek out and secure local food chains applies to animals too. Right now, as an example, there is a shortage of viable options for processing meat. Abattoir businesses are reminding people to book their processing now for the fall. The demand for abattoir services far exceeds the availability.

It feels overwhelming at times, especially after reading this laundry list of all that is wrong with the system. There are people out there, though, who are seeking out local food and access to land to grow food. There are food share programs and farmers markets, roadside stands, and egg sellers.

Kemptville has a facebook page called Local Food Initiatives. North Dundas will have one shortly. Jump on, and share how you access local food and what it means to you.

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