By Jeff Nield
Over the past couple of years, the concept of eating locally has taken hold of the public imagination. Thanks to years of on the ground work by a group of dedicated non-profits, activists, farmers, small businesses, and eaters, the benefits of eating food grown as close to home as possible has at least made it to the edge of mainstream society. Buying locally grown food is a positive choice for the environment, the economy, personal health, and our communities. Not to mention that learning where your food comes from is empowering information that will lead to a greater understanding of the food system in general.
So you’ve learned the reasons for choosing local food—now how do you find it? There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that there are lots of options for buying your weekly groceries. Buying clubs like NOWBC source as much of their product as they can locally and organically. Farmers markets now run at least biweekly throughout our region with more being added every year. There’s also direct buying from farmers through Community Shared Agriculture programs where you pay up front to help the farm with start up costs and in return, receive a weekly box of farm fresh produce throughout their harvest time. There’s even CSAs for fish and grain starting up for Vancouver residents! And more and more grocery stores and markets are clearly labeling the origins of the food they sell so you can easily see what is, and isn’t, local.
Now the bad news. If everyone decided to buy only local food, or the trucks and ships and planes stopped arriving, there wouldn’t be enough local food to go around. If all existing farmland in Metro Vancouver were in full productivity, it is estimated that we could supply a maximum 85% of the food for our current population. But farmland is disappearing and the current increasing demand for local food is outstripping supply. While this is partially due to the fact that our land base isn’t big enough to support our population, it’s also because B.C.’s agriculture sector is built around exports. Despite the lip service it paid to local food in last year’s Agriculture Plan, the provincial government is focused on agriculture as a trade-based industry. So for example, we end up exporting our locally grown apples and importing apples from Washington.
Another piece in the puzzle is lack of processing and distribution infrastructure. At a recent industry event called Meet Your Maker, the participants, made up of all sorts of food producers and buyers, were asked what they would need in order to get more local food into the hands of consumers. An overwhelming number of responses cited centralized and specialized storage and processing facilities.
Local food and concepts like the 100-Mile Diet are often seen as quaint themes for a harvest barbecue at the end of the traditional growing season, but the real positive impact that local food systems have on communities both big and small is often lost on policy makers. Shortsighted policy, like the recent changes to the meat inspection regulations, are driving small producers that serve local markets out of business throughout the province. It’s a wonder that any farmers care enough to seed, weed, and harvest. Lucky for us, farmers are a stubborn lot by nature and their drive to work the land outweighs the odds stacked against them to make a good living.
Jeff Nield is the operations manager for FarmFolk/CityFolk Society, a nonprofit organization that works to cultivate a local, sustainable food system.