Asking the right questions helps determine if food really is 'local'

LocalFoodIn order to know how to accurately source organic, locally grown food, one needs to ask: how local is local?

According to Kris Vester, president of Slow Food Calgary, when it comes to eating organic, it does not necessarily mean the food is local.

"Let's say someone is selling you eggs and those come from chickens that have been fed corn from the U.S. Midwest, and soy that comes from the U.S. Midwest. Are those still local eggs?" Vester asks.

Vester believes eating a locally grown product means consuming food that is not only geographically local, but also produced with local resources free of fossil fuels or any other matter that may affect the environment for future generations.

"People do eat local, but sometimes do not ask the questions that would identify it as truly local," says Vester. "We as an organization try to educate people on how to ask questions and make a decision."

Slow Food Calgary, one of many branches of Slow Food Canada, encourages the cooking of regional dishes with ingredients that are local to the Calgary area. They also try to create public awareness around how consumers can support sustainable agricultural products by using local farmers' products.

However, eating locally is not possible for everyone, and this is a hurdle that Vester admits may limit some consumers.

"It's a significant barrier for people with very limited income to be able to eat local food," says Vester.

Vester has experience with farm economics, and his family owns Blue Mountain Biodynamic Farms near Carstairs, Alta., where they produce and sell meat, eggs, vegetables, herbs, edible flowers and fruit in the summer months.

BiodynamicFarms1Blue Mountain Biodynamic Farms is operated by Kris Vestor’s family near Carstairs, Alta. They produce and sell meat, eggs, vegetables, herbs, edible flowers, and fruit in the summer months.
Photo provided by: Tamara Vestor

Vester says that unfortunately, most local farms in Alberta are not large enough to be producing high quantities of products that will successfully lower prices on local food, especially when compared to large, non-organic produce farms in the U.S. that can grow vast amounts and sell for much cheaper prices.

But a significant drawback to these farms is many products are grown artificially, using pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers that add to ecological costs.

"It's an artificially cheap food because they are not paying for all of the real costs that are associated with the production of the food," Vester insists.

Andrew Hewsen, a chef instructor at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), agrees that locally grown food is not cheap, but it is easier to access now than it was 10 years ago.

"It was around back then, but it was definitely challenging to get certain products," says Hewsen. "But now there's so much stuff available it's actually fairly easy to access, depending on the time of year."

There is a greater variety of produce to choose from during the summer and fall, and Hewsen says this is a part of eating locally, or "rolling with the seasons."

"You can't be expecting tomatoes, fresh carrots, green beans and all that kind of stuff right now (in winter), but there's still a lot of good root veg, protein and some green house produce out there," says Hewsen.

Localize is an organization based in Edmonton that works with local grocery stores such as Co-op, Sobey's and other independent outlets, to help identify local products that are available.

"What we find is that grocery stores are actually very motivated to bring in local products, but sometimes they lack the information like just knowing what's local," says Meghan Dear, CEO of Localize.

Through proper shelf advertising, Dear says she hopes to create awareness of local Alberta products including tomatoes from Paradise Hills Farms in Nanton, No Nuts Peabutter from Legal, and Viabar cereal bars from High River.

According to a 2013 Canadian Chef Survey by the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, the number one "hot trend" in the restaurant industry is locally produced food and locally inspired dishes.

"When you just hear so many people talking about it, there are so many restaurants now that are focused on advertising regional foods," chef Hewsen adds. "Consumers are demanding it, I think, and if they're not, they at least want to know where their food is coming from."

Hewsen says this demand encourages a chef to think more about the food being cooked, and to be responsible and aware of items that are on the menu.

As a chef instructor, Hewsen encourages cooking with locally grown products. He was even part of a project at SAIT that built their own sustainable garden in order to engage students in learning about locally grown products.

Budget-wise, Hewsen says that they can't always be purchasing a lot of locally grown products, but try to whenever possible, although price is not the only difference.

"If you know the farm or farmer where that food has come from, then there's a lot more respect for that ingredient," says Hewsen. "So you'll put maybe a little bit more care and attention in the preparation of it, as opposed to just a commodity vegetable."

How often do you buy Alberta local food products?

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