Eating a truly local diet for a year poses some tricky questions. First in a series.
It’s strawberry season. James and I are at the Ellis Farms u-pick on Delta’s Westham Island, crouching between long rows of the bunchy green plants, plucking the big berries and dropping them gently into small buckets. We imagine their future with cream and in pies. I lick the sweet red juice from my fingers. “If I make jam we can have strawberries all year,” I say. James asks with what, exactly, I plan to make the jam? Sugar? One of the planet’s most exploitative products, shipped in from thousands of kilometres away?
“But what,” I reply, “will we eat all winter?”
This may seem like a peculiar question in an age when it’s normal to have Caribbean mangoes in winter and Australian pears in spring. However, on March 21, the first day of spring, we took a vow to live with the rhythms of the land as our ancestors did. For one year we would only buy food and drink for home consumption that was produced within 100 miles of our home, a circle that takes in all the fertile Fraser Valley, the southern Gulf Islands and some of Vancouver Island, and the ocean between these zones. This terrain well served the European settlers of a hundred years ago, and the First Nations population for thousands of years before.
This may sound like a lunatic Luddite scheme, but we had our reasons. The short form would be: fossil fuels bad. For the average American meal (and we assume the average Canadian meal is similar), World Watch reports that the ingredients typically travel between 2,500 and 4,000 kilometres, a 25 percent increase from 1980 alone. This average meal uses up to 17 times more petroleum products, and increases carbon dioxide emissions by the same amount, compared to an entirely local meal.
Let’s translate that into the ecological footprint model devised by Dr. William Rees of UBC which measures how many planets’-worth of resources would be needed if everyone did the same. If you had an average North American lifestyle in every other way, from driving habits to the size of your house, by switching to a local diet you would save almost an entire planet’s worth of resources (though you’d still be gobbling up seven earths).
But forget about virtue. Think instead about the pure enjoyment that should come with eating. Few would deny that all this seasonless supermarket produce often has very little taste. Those grapefruits the size of your head, and strawberries the size plums used to be, have the consistency of cardboard. On the other hand, we took our inspiration from a meal we created entirely from the bounty around us while staying at our off-the-grid cabin in northern British Columbia: a Dolly Varden trout, chanterelle mushrooms, dandelion greens and potatoes–all from the fields, forests, and streams within easy walking distance.
So our rules, when we began, were purist. It was not enough for food to be locally produced (as in bread made by local bakers.) No. Every single ingredient had to come from the earth in our magic 100-mile circle. Our only “out” was that we were allowed to eat occasionally in restaurants or at friends’ houses as we always had, so that we did not have to be social outcasts for a year. And, if we happened to travel elsewhere, we could bring home foods grown within a hundred miles of that new place.
Immediately there were problems. First was the expense. We used to eat a nearly vegan diet at home-our dwindling bank accounts emphasized how much cheaper beans, rice and tofu are than wild salmon, oysters and organic boutique cheeses.
Then, we wasted away. We were unable to find any locally grown grains-no more bread, pasta, or rice. The only starch left to us was the potato. Between us, we lost about 15 pounds in six weeks. While I appreciated the beauty and creativity of James’ turnip sandwich, with big slabs of roasted turnip as the “bread,” this innovation did little to stave off the constant hunger. James’ jeans hung down his butt like a skater boy. He told me I had no butt left at all.
At the end of these desperate six weeks, we loosened our rules to include locally milled flour. Anita’s, the one local company we found, said they got their organic grains from the Peace district and from Saskatchewan. We decided this would have to do. We had phoned a couple of local organic farmers who, on the Certified Organic Associations of BC website, listed wheat among their products, but one said he no longer did it, and the other never returned our call. Surely, 100 years ago, farmers grew wheat in the Fraser Valley to supply local needs, but the global market system is a disincentive to such small-scale production. There’s no competing with the huge agri-businesses that have cloaked the Canadian prairies with grain.
Then there was a lack of variety. From March 21 until the farmers’ markets started in mid-May, the only locally grown vegetables available were humble fare like kale, cabbage, turnip, rutabaga, parsnip and leeks. By late April, even these ran out in our West Side neighbourhood stores-Capers, IGA, Safeway, New Apple, and the Granville Island market-and only U.S.-grown versions were available. For a couple of weeks we wondered if it would be possible to go on with this crazy diet. We could walk into, say, an IGA and look down all those glittering aisles, and there was not a single thing we could buy.
On a late-April visit to Victoria I checked out a Thrifty’s supermarket, and they had a local organic salad mix. I bought a huge bag to bring home-at $17.99 a pound. While we are grateful to have a Capers near our home, we were frustrated that, for about two weeks after local lettuces were for sale at the Trout Lake farmer’s market, Capers continued to sell only organic greens from California.
Farmers’ market heaven
Now that the farmers’ markets are in full swing, we are perfectly content with the Hundred-Mile Diet. But the markets end in September. What to do from then until next March? My thoughts turn to preserves. Then it comes back to the sugar question.
“Couldn’t we use honey?” James says as we survey our 26 pounds of fresh-picked strawberries.
“I don’t think it will ‘jam’ with just honey,” I say. “And you need so much sugar-I can’t imagine what that much honey would cost.”
The strawberry lady tells us that the Cameron family sells honey just up the road, so we drive there to find out the cost. The bee lady, Gail Cameron, walks out of her bungalow when she hears the crunch of our tires on the driveway. She tells us that this is the first honey of the season, blueberry, and she gives us a sample on a popsicle stick. It is the sweetest, most delicious honey I’ve ever had. We buy a kilogram for $11. (A kilogram of sugar costs $2.59.)
At home I heat a few saucepots of strawberries until they release their own juices, and grudgingly add one cup of precious honey, to make a grand total of two large jars of preserves. I was right, they don’t “jam,” but we do end up with a tasty sauce. We pray for good bulk rates when summer sunshine gets the bees making more honey, but we suspect that honey is out of our reach as a means of preserving a winter’s worth of fruit. But there is détente for now on the sugar question-at least until blueberry season next month.
Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon will be writing twice a month on The Tyee about their attempt to eat well on the Hundred-Mile Diet. For more information on finding locally produced food visit the web site of FarmFolk/CityFolk at www.farmfolkcityfolk.ca
Wanted: A Perfectly Local Chicken
For a truly sustainable breakfast, which comes first? The tofu or the egg?
[In the interest of preserving the environment, the authors are on a ‘100-Mile Diet’. They have vowed to eat nothing originating more than 100 miles from their home in Vancouver. This is the second in series.]
Does vegetarianism make ecological sense? For more than 15 years, the answer, for us, has been yes. We accepted the now-familiar sustainability formula: on any given tract of agricultural land, it is almost always possible to produce more vegetable foods than animals to eat. Add in the question of cruelty (which seems to increase with every “efficiency” added to animal husbandry), and for us the issue was no contest.
These days, however, we’re asking a new question. Does vegetarianism fit into a local, sustainable diet?
Now things are getting complicated.
Alisa and I were near-vegans when we began our Hundred Mile Diet three months ago. Suddenly, everything we could eat or drink at home had to come from local land and waters, and immediately an unexpected ethical question loomed. What the hell are we going to eat for breakfast?
The neighbourhood chickens
Consider: we knew of no locally grown and milled cereals or flours. It was too early in the year for fresh fruit. We couldn’t eat rice pudding, or scrambled tofu, or that nice Egyptian fava bean breakfast called ful medames. What we had were potatoes and . . . more potatoes.
Well-meaning friends offered the following advice: “Buy eggs, you idiots!” Sorry, well-meaning friends, but it’s not that easy. Yes, there are local, organic, free-range chickens busy producing local eggs. But what are the chickens eating? The answer, typically, is feed that has travelled the same kinds of distances as most grocery-store products—an average, according to World Watch, of a whopping, globe-warming 2,500 to 4,000 kilometres.
Then we discovered the UBC Farm.
Tucked among the conifers that spread south from the central university campus, UBC Farm is home to an organic market garden as well as 83 Hy-Line Brown chickens. Beyond raising our own, this is about the closest connection to local food that we could ask for. Alisa and I can ride bikes to the Saturday public market (9 a.m. to 1 p.m.), where we are free to walk the grounds and visit the chickens (though they never seem to remember us). We can see for ourselves the birds’ living conditions—500 square metres of free range in which the handsome, rust-coloured hens forage for bugs, eat at feeders, or peck at organic waste from the farm. We even know, roughly, the birds’ birthdays: the whole brood was born in December 2004 and will be kept three years before slaughter.
Much of what the chickens eat, then, is as local as can be. Their cereal feed is not. According to Mark Bomford, program coordinator for the farm, the organic feed comes from Alberta. It is, however, brought to Vancouver via a transshipment arrangement, by which trucks that deliver steel to Alberta return with loads of chicken feed.
More importantly, UBC Farm is working toward all-local feed for the chickens. The students and staff have experimented with growing grain on-site, and plan to revive old threshers and other farm machinery from a former agricultural teaching and research complex on campus. While Bomford admits it’s “mostly lunchroom talk” right now, the ultimate vision is to grow, harvest and blend a complete chicken feed on the farm. Meanwhile, Bomford adds, the chickens do more than simply lay eggs—they contribute to the sustainability of overall food production. Chicken manure is a potent fertilizer, and the Hy-Line Browns are also being tested for pest-control duty.
Global vegetarianism? No thanks
As for the eggs—we’ll take a dozen, thanks. When it comes to eating locally, we’ve had to abandon strict vegetarianism.
The strange fact is that vegetarianism as commonly practiced is, like the rest of the industrial food system, propped up by the globalization of food and everything that it entails, including a total disconnection between food consumers and producers, and the cataclysmic ecological costs of shipping food around the world. At its worst, global vegetarianism is still cleaner and greener than global meat-eating, and is certainly more humane. On a local level, though, the questions are more complicated.
Why were the UBC Farm eggs so important to us? Because vegetable-based protein sources aren’t exactly abundant in these parts. There are hazelnuts; unfortunately, Alisa is allergic to them. The most readily available protein sources are all animal-based: fish and shellfish, eggs, dairy, meat. It is increasingly clear that local, sustainable eating is not always going to be vegetarian. Imagine attempting a Hundred Mile Diet in Whitehorse (a brother of mine is considering exactly that—and picturing a lot of meals of fish and game).
I can hear the carnivores cheering now. Well, don’t roll out the coupons for Memphis Blues Barbeque House just yet. UBC Farm may be committed to principles of local sustainability and humane stewardship, but they are far from the norm. When it comes to food choices, the line-up of questions facing animal products is long. Where did the product come from? Where did the feed for the animal come from? Was the feed genetically modified? Was it organic? Was the animal “improved” with a biomedical soup of hormones, stimulants, antibiotics? Were its living conditions acceptable? Can we live with the conditions of its slaughter?
So much complexity, and it’s still only breakfast time.
The good news: asking these kinds of questions led Alisa and me in surprising directions. By making inquiries about chicken feed, we eventually found locally grown Red Fife wheat, a heritage variety almost forgotten by industrial farming. Once we’ve milled the grain generously given to us by a Delta farmer, we’ll have breakfast options beyond hash browns: like, say, pancakes smothered in seasonal berries from the U-pick operations on Westham Island near Ladner. A search for other heritage grain growers led us to Dan Jason of Salt Spring Seeds—who also stocks seed for regional soy, black, pinto and other dried beans and legumes, and who has made his own 100-percent-local tofu. In theory, a vegetarian or even vegan diet could be supplied by local farms.
“It’s time, it’s really time,” said Jason. “Even on [Salt Spring] island here there’s talk of growing beans and grains on a larger scale, owning a combine cooperatively or something like that.”
If and when it gets to that point, I suspect the chickens and their eggs will still be with us. I recently spent half a year researching a book in the Dominican Republic (shameless plug: Dead Man in Paradise will be published by Douglas & McIntyre in October), where self-sufficiency remains a grand tradition. In the city of Santo Domingo, a modern urban capital of more than two million people, it’s no surprise to wake up to the rooster’s crow and see hens foraging on the boulevards. According to Bonita Magee, project manager with Farm Folk/City Folk, there is no current local campaign to roll back Vancouver’s prohibition against raising chickens, bees and other useful animals in the city, but she knows there is a quiet upwelling of support for the idea. She knows, in fact, of chickens being kept illicitly among us.
It’s one kind of grow-op the neighbours don’t seem to mind.
Next time: The pleasures of local eating, recipes included.
Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon will be writing twice a month for The Tyee about their attempt to eat well on the Hundred-Mile Diet. For more information on finding locally produced food visit the web site of FarmFolk/CityFolk at www.farmfolkcityfolk.ca.
A Local Eating Rhapsody
Why not try a Hundred-Mile Meal? Third in a series.
A few days ago, I went over to a friend’s house and he offered me a banana. It had been a while. Beginning with the first day of spring, my partner Alisa and I had made a commitment to buy no food or drink for home consumption that had travelled from farther than a hundred-mile radius. Well, I accepted the gift of the banana. I ate the damn thing, and wow, was it ever delicious.
Then I caught myself. Why get so hopped up about a banana? It’s not as though the Hundred-Mile Diet has been sparse and bland. Just a week ago I was literally pouring double handfuls of blueberries fresh off the bush and into my mouth, a moment of foodie decadence as great as any I’ve ever experienced. Alisa and I might have started eating close to home in order to explore what a truly sustainable diet could look like, but we aren’t people who get a charge out of feeling holier-than-thou. We like our pleasures real.
Below the megamart radar
As we talk about the Hundred-Mile Diet with various people, we hear again and again that our meals must be both spartan and shockingly repetitive. I understand where that impression comes from-the local grocery store. Living in a cargo-cult food culture, we now take for granted the fact that we can eat strawberries from New Zealand in January and might never see a Fraser Valley apple on the shelf. Take away certain global ingredients-like sugar cane-and whole aisles in the megamart might as well have vanished.
What we’re finding, however, is that there is a world of local foods to be found below the radar. In fact, as we creep into the growers’ high season, it’s an embarrassment of riches. Even in early spring-the leanest time of year, when few fresh foods are ready to harvest-we managed to make do. This was the menu for our first official Hundred-Mile Meal back in March: Hothouse cucumber slices with beet, carrot and kohlrabi slaw.
Steamed kale and mashed potatoes.
Organic yoghurt with garden anise.
Spring salmon with organic sage butter.
Warm Saltspring Island brie with ground roasted hazelnuts, frozen blueberries, and a cranberry juice and honey reduction.
Fraser Valley bacchus wine and Cowichan Valley cider.
“Goodness,” we thought as we cradled our bellies after the meal. “How will we ever survive?”
We don’t often eat that well, of course, if only because the cost would soon leave us with only a single dining option: the food bank. But the persistent idea that a local diet can’t be varied is an indication of how disconnected most of us are from the reality of living in one of the planet’s richest ecological regions. Yes, the long, cold, wet spring was a challenge (at one point we ate a chickweed and dandelion salad), but only because we were starting with a knowledge base near zero.
Now, that’s good
What did we eventually come up with? We ate fiddleheads, the catch-them-or-they’re-gone baby ostrich ferns that are picked wild from secret sweet spots in the Fraser Valley. We discovered that the tang of dried local seaweeds is improbably addictive. Strait of Georgia shellfish, we can now confirm, are at their buttery best in the colder months-we steamed them in the impressive wines of local vintners like Domaine de Chaberton, and drank off the juices. Largely forgotten root vegetables like celeriac and sunchokes found their way to the table, along with good winter keepers like parsnips, cabbages, kale, red onions and even apples. Yes, we ate a lot of potatoes, but also bright hothouse peppers and dried wild mushrooms. There were few fruits but a lot of fruit juice, especially shots of pure cranberry that can open your eyes in the morning like a triple espresso. Hungry for protein, we got to know exactly when and where fisheries openings would occur. We kissed halibut. A later field trip up the valley revealed orchards of hazelnuts (Alisa is allergic; for me they’ve become a staple).
There are still red and black currants in the freezer.
As the season wore on and we became leading local experts on the qualities of various spuds, we celebrated the arrival of new potatoes, so crisp, rich and nutty that they might as well have been a whole new vegetable. We ate our first ones raw. We mourned the passing of a ruinous asparagus season (better luck next year). But the weather has been good to the berries; the rains made them fat, and now the sun has made them sweet. Even the pithy wild salal berries, beloved of bears, are juicy this year and leave your mouth with a perfumed taste. These are the fruits of spring and early summer, though plums and some local apricots are starting to turn up at the markets.
Did I mention the honey? Somewhere along the way we discovered pumpkin-flower honey, which made me wonder what that insipid stuff was that I’d been spreading on my toast since childhood.
Now, everything is changing yet again. Fiddleheads are long forgotten, and the summertime cuisine is all about the colour green: lettuces, collards and mustard greens, dai gai choi and joi choi, sweet gypsy peppers, fava bean pods the size of sausages, pickling cucumbers, even green tomatoes. In other words: Don’t worry, mom, we’re getting our vitamins and minerals. It’s worth pausing to note that many of these foods that turn up in the markets-or in our community garden plot-can never be found in the local Safeway. All of them, almost without fail, will be more flavourful than anything you’ll find shipped in from California or from Ecuador.
Whole cultural currents are beginning to turn around local foods and eating. The use of regional ingredients has become a cliché among chefs (though often louder in the saying than the doing), municipalities like Surrey, Richmond, and Delta now promote “agritourism,” and the international Slow Food movement (which has a local chapter) celebrates regional eating and real, human relationships with growers and producers.
The result-above and beyond the reduction of greenhouse gases produced in global shipping-is support for a local economy that is also being propelled toward organic and sustainable practices. (This, in turn, opens the fields to even more rarified and complex production methods such as permaculture, which attempts to design permanent, high-yielding agricultural ecosystems using as little land as possible.) The pattern is based on a straightforward rule: it is easier to make ethical decisions about sustainability and animal husbandry when you can walk onto the farm and see for yourself. Distance is the enemy of awareness.
But enough about all of that. There are a lot of Big Issues associated with the food system, and there will be time to write about several of them here as the Hundred-Mile Diet continues. The point of this dispatch is to forget about the politics and . . . rhapsodize. Eating locally is a grand adventure. It has taken us to 40-year-old family fish shops and introduced us to people who have grown their own soy beans for homemade tofu. It has left us calling our mothers to find out how to wash and cook whole-grain wheat. Best of all, every time I open the refrigerator to come up with something for dinner, I feel like a pioneer.
Let’s see, I’ve got radishes, blue potatoes, sage, clams and garlic. Recipe books are plumbed. Old standbys are transformed. And isn’t that how cookery as distinct as those of Tuscany and Provence, not to mention the coastal First Nations, evolved? It is hard to imagine those cuisines emerging in today’s global culture-does oolichan grease go with durian fruit?-but as we move closer to home and follow the seasons, we’ll see innovation start to happen at the speed of necessity.
Why not try your hand? Alisa and I are eating locally for a year, but the same experiment can work for a night, a dinner party, a potluck. This we can guarantee: you will begin to change the way you think about your food. And maybe that dinner will turn into breakfast, lunch and beyond. All of which, I guess, is my long and winding way of saying that I don’t really miss bananas. If a friend offers one, I’ll take it. I’ll take it for exactly what it is-a treat from another world.
Here’s a day’s worth of local eating. Please note that I’m just an ordinary, three-meals-a-day cook-not a chef-so what you’re getting is far from perfect. Improvements on these recipes, or 100-percent-local recipes of your own, are more than welcome. -J.B.
1 cup grated potato
3-5 green onions, chopped
1 cup of “character” (see below)
1 tbsp melted butter
salt and cracked hot peppers
In a large bowl, toss potato (good baking or mashing varieties such as russets are best), green onions and “character” (whatever is seasonal and at hand, such as crumbled cooked salmon, roasted red peppers, sweet corn, wild mushrooms). Lightly beat eggs; whisk in melted butter, as well as salt and cracked peppers to taste. Pour over the potato mixture and stir together. (Add a third egg if the resulting batter seems too thin.) Heat a lightly buttered skillet to medium-low. Spread the mixture into “pancakes,” cook until golden, then flip and cook on the other side.
Local notes: All of these products are locally available, especially at farmers’ markets (except salt; we still have old stocks of salt on hand, and will work to find a local source as that disappears-any leads?). We buy organic within reason, and only purchase organic animal products. If you have further concerns over the care of local laying hens or dairy cows, most local farms welcome questions and arrange visits. And yes, hot peppers turn up at local markets. I have a bagful from Surrey.
* * *
1 lb (500 g) arugula
2 cloves garlic
1/3 to 1/2 cup crushed, roasted hazelnuts
Salt and cracked hot peppers
2-3 tbsp butter
First, prepare whatever it is you might want to put your pesto onto-local choices include potatoes boiled to just off the crunch or whole-grain Red Fife wheat. Set aside one cup of cooking liquid. Next, finely hand-chop all ingredients but butter. Toss with the potatoes or wheat berries. Add butter and enough cooking liquid that the pesto clings like a sauce. Warm on the stove until just heated through, then serve.
Local notes: The best arugula I’ve ever eaten is local-leaves so young and tender one grower said calling them “baby greens” was not enough. He called them “micro greens.” Garlic and arugula are readily available, the latter especially in spring and early summer. Hazelnuts are grown in the Fraser Valley.
* * *
Fanny Bay Pie
6 medium to large oysters
1 cup celery
1 onion (or 4-5 green onions)
2 cups boiled potatoes
salt and cracked hot peppers
In a small to medium skillet, melt enough butter to sauté. Add onions and celery (or substitute celery for another seasonal vegetable, such as green beans or carrots). Cook slowly until tender. Meanwhile, hard-boil the eggs. Set aside the liquor from the oysters and then cut the oysters into the skillet using scissors. Turn up the heat to medium-low and fry oysters until they curl. Remove from heat and turn out the mixture into a greased pie plate. Roughly chop the boiled eggs and stir them in. Season to taste with salt and hot peppers, and moisten with the oyster liquor. Cover the “pie” with mashed potatoes (prepared as you wish, with or without butter, milk, etc). Bake about 20 minutes or until contents are bubbling and potato crust is lightly browned. Spread chopped parsley over the top and serve . . . we ate it with a salad and gooseberry wine from Westham Island Estate Winery.
Local notes: All ingredients should be readily available. Strait of Georgia oysters can be found at reputable fish shops.
Previously in this series:
Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon will be writing twice a month for The Tyee about their attempt to eat well on the Hundred-Mile Diet. For more information on finding locally produced food visit the web site of FarmFolk/CityFolk.
Have your own wholly local recipes to share? Post them below.
Why We Pay Too Little for Well Travelled Food
Charging the true cost of “food miles” could change the way people eat. Fourth in a series.
Walk into a supermarket and look at the pile of tomatoes. Maybe they’re from BC or Washington; maybe they’re from Mexico. Chances are, either way, they’re about $3 per pound. How does produce that has travelled thousands of kilometers end up retailing for no more than the local goods-and sometimes for even less?
There are a lot of complicated equations at work here, from economies of scale to labour costs to the pricing power of trend-setting agricultural giants like California. One area that is often overlooked, however, is the realm of “externalities”-the term economists use to describe the costs (or benefits) of producing an item that affect people other than the producers themselves. Externalities are typically not reflected in prices. The Economist magazine calls this a form of market failure, as well they might.
In terms of our sample tomato, those hidden costs might include government tax breaks and subsidies to oil companies (which reduce costs of chemical fertilizer, shipping and packaging); government-funded water diversion projects; subsidies to industrial agriculture; support of expensive highway systems; and the downstream costs of agrochemical pollution, such as health care and water purification.
Who pays the price for all of that? We all do, though our taxes. Where we don’t pay for it is at the supermarket till when they ring through our $3-a-pound tomato.
Hidden costs paid later
Call it the Mxyztplk Economy. You remember Mr. Mxyztplk from the old comic books-the super-villain from a different dimension where everything was the reverse of what it ought to be. That parallel universe is the industrial food system. Instead of each of us paying the true cost of our food choices up front, we buy our food cheap and pay the hidden environmental and social price later as a society.
In March, James and I started a yearlong experiment in local eating that we call the Hundred-Mile Diet. The distance that food typically travels to get to our plates was a major motivator, and sure enough, “food miles” are a seriously see-no-evil externality. In fact, despite the gas-pump rage that many of us now feel, subsidies continue to keep transportation costs artificially cheap-right now they amount to only 10 percent of the retail price of a tomato that’s been shipped halfway across the continent, says a 2001 study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
No one seems to have calculated what an imported tomato should cost in an honest economy, but I’ll make a guess based on recent British research. A 2002 Worldwatch study shows that the British government spends CAN$3.2 billion fixing farming-related problems, such as purifying drinking water polluted by agrochemicals and containing mad-cow disease. This is nearly the amount of all British farmers’ annual income-in other words, the present wholesale price of produce. Then there are the many other expenses the British people bear to keep industrial farmers afloat, most notably $6.4 billion in annual subsidies (a situation paralleled in North America). Transfer these tripled expenses from taxpayers and onto tomatoes, and they could cost $9 a pound.
Suddenly, an imported, chemically treated tomato would cost far more than a local, organic variety. We have escaped from the Mxyztplk Economy.
China’s agro ambitions
In July, the British government made a move in that direction by promising to reduce by 20 percent the environmental and social costs of food transport by 2012. Closer to home, Capers markets recently began working to consolidate produce deliveries from local growers, saving fuel costs to the farmers and externalities to all of us, and Small Potatoes Home Delivery lists food miles on its receipts. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the direction that the global food system seems to be heading-if anything, we’re digging deeper into a world where the cost of our choices is hidden from us until everybody has to pay them.
“China has committed to being the world’s biggest supplier of produce,” says Rich Pirog, the marketing and food systems program leader at the Leopold Center in Iowa. Externalities in this case will include massive government damming and irrigation projects, dislocation and relocation of millions of people, and devastating environmental impacts as the world’s most populous nation expands farmland and turns more aggressively toward agrochemicals. If China succeeds in its aims, it will also increase the average distance the food on North American plates travels (let us mention again that it’s already 2,500 to 4,000 kilometres), further revving up global warming.
Fortunately, a countercurrent also exists. In those parts of the world that matter least to the global marketeers, local eating is still the norm. In North America and Europe, a bioregional philosophy is being revived. Consider the Broad Street Restaurant in Dorset, England, which pledged to use only produce grown within a 30-kilometre radius; the 15th-century Red Lion pub near Canterbury serves lamb and beef raised 90 metres from its door.
Vancouver bright spots
Vancouver has its own adherents. James and I pulled into the cool calm of the Raincity Grill while the Mardi Gras of the Pride parade streamed by on Denman Street. As we read the brunch menu-preserved tomato and goat cheese frittata, Dungeness crab omelette-James said incredulously, “This looks like what we eat at home.” He didn’t mean the sumptuous dishes themselves, but rather the ingredients: hazelnuts, daikon radish, lettuce, local cheeses and sea foods, lots of potatoes. Almost everything seasonal and local. According to chef Andrea Carlson, the menu right now focuses on the nearby farming community of Agassiz. She’s proud of the role restaurants like hers play in helping local producers grow.
“I met a woman who makes phenomenal cheeses and I put them on the menu. People loved them, and things just took off for her,” says Carlson.
Raincity has even given farmers seed money to ensure a steady supply of organic lamb, which is too large a start-up investment for many small-scale producers. Good will aside, she has been forced to be innovative by the global marketplace. “It’s surprising how hard it is to get produce from local growers,” Carlson says. “They want to sell cooperatively to big distributors, and then you don’t know where stuff came from.”
That’s much less of a problem for Aphrodite’s Café on West Fourth Avenue, where owner Allan Christian estimates that more than 90 percent of the food he is currently selling comes from the 50-acre Glen Valley Organic Farm Cooperative in Langley and its immediate neighbours. The reason? He calls the place home.
“To me, this is not a concept,” he says of the local menu for his two-year-old restaurant, which began as a pie shop. “I grew up on a farm and I live on a beautiful farm and I just thought-I’ll do it the way I live.” His Saskatchewan roots show through when he tells us that even in winter he can call on cellared, ground-stored or winter-growing vegetables like squash or kale. Even in the early spring, when the new year’s crops are nothing more than sprouts, he figures that 50 to 60 percent of Aphrodite’s menu is from the cooperative.
Buying from a restaurateur who might have cut the kale leaves himself that morning? By gosh, it sounds like something from a parallel universe.
Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon will be writing twice a month for The Tyee about their attempt to eat well on the Hundred-Mile Diet. For more information on finding locally produced food visit the web site of FarmFolk/CityFolk.
Read the whole 100-Mile Diet Series. Previously: