Features

A local affair

The second instalment of three, exploring the trials and tribulations of one Gauntlet writer's experiences with specialized diets.

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After my foray into the world of raw I was looking forward to eating hot foods again. I was excited to jump into the local food scene in Calgary after seeing the focus raw foodists take on fresh and healthy foods. My conversation about the raw food diet with Light Cellar employee Denis Manzer had me considering the importance of local food over organics. The local scene in Calgary is underrated. When I thought of lush farmers' market cities places like Vancouver came to mind, though Calgary does offer an abundance of local produce. Blue Mountain Biodynamic Farm's produce, Golden Lane honey farm and Aviv's bread are some of the coveted items that the Calgary local scene has to offer, but there are also many markets, restaurants, events and retailers toting sustainable and local products to pepper Calgary's local food industry.

"The root of the word [sustainability] is to keep going on with what works," explains Frank Sarro, the purchasing manager for Community Natural Foods. "It encompasses almost everything you can think of." Sarro is among many who strive for a more local food-based diet. Localvores' focus on a more sustainable agricultural system has helped the local food movement gain momentum in communities. Like the raw foodists, localvores see their diet as a lifestyle that is environmentally, economically and socially conscious. This alternative method of agriculture leaves a smaller carbon footprint than produce and food purchased at a conventional supermarket. "Most [supermarket] ingredients will have travelled 1,500 miles," said Andrew Winfield, chef of the River Cafe. The Prince's Island Park restaurant features seasonal Canadian cuisine, and serves regional, organic and free-range ingredients. Winfield made a good point, explaining that most of our foods travel continents to get to retailers, and so the products are treated with chemicals to sustain them. "The food is built to travel," he stated.

For localvores, the impact of their lifestyle goes beyond the environment. "It's not just about environmental stewardship and environmental responsibility," says Stephanie Jackman, founder and president of Respect for the Earth and All People. "We are really talking about the economic and social impacts of a business."

The REAP Business Association was created with the goal of making a sustainable local economy in Calgary. According to Jackman, choosing to shop locally one out of 10 times can generate huge revenue for the local economy, creating interships and jobs. Still, going to farmers' markets or local bakeries can leave you with a daunting grocery bill at the end. According to Sarro, however, the cost of conventional food is not far behind its local brethren. "The reality is normal food is expensive," he said. But as conventional foods have spiked in pricing, the price of organic food has remained relatively stable.

There are more resources for food than just your local grocery store. The Calgary Horticultural Society encourages local gardening for the enhancement of the local environment and quality of life. More than just gathering resources for starting your own garden, the Society offers community gardens in their resource network. Gael Blackhall, an employee of the Society's community garden resource network, has her own saving practices when she shops locally. Around the end of the weekend at farmers' markets, Blackhall makes a point of talking to the farmers. "They are cleaning up and leaving for the weekend. You can get discounted veggies and fruits," explains Blackhall. "For students, it's about looking for the deal." Places like Superstore carry a 50 per cent off rack, where the produce is perfect for adding to baking or smoothies. REAP also offers financial aid in the form of a green coupon book which has over $2,000 in savings for 38 different local businesses. "It raises awareness for these business-owners and makes it more affordable," says Jackman of her company's booklet.

Some restaurants, like Calgary's District Gastropub, choose local ingredients while keeping the consumer's price point in mind. Heather Gould-Hawke, the head chef at District, believes in making higher quality food openly available. "I was raised in a sustainable household," Gould-Hawke explained. "We grew what we consumed and it's something I still believe in. Now, it's my [culinary] style, my way of handling food." While she occasionally imports ingredients from farmers in British Columbia, Gould-Hawke's aim is to maintain and develop relationships with farmers in both B.C. and Alberta. "It's about supporting farmers, supporting our own agriculture. Clean food makes for better food and living. It's nice to offer that quality of food to everyone." To keep costs down, for meat in particular, Gould-Hawke explains she chooses secondary cuts of meat over the more expensive primary cuts, but the compromise is well worth it. If you've seen District's menu, it constantly changes to keep with seasonal ingredients. The pub's motto, "we keep it fresh," doesn't mean their menu's restrictions keep it mediocre and plain.

Keeping it simple with a pinch of creativity is a moniker within the localvore community. It not only cuts down on costs but can also help students who are in a bind for time. "Here [at the farmers' market] we get lots of squash," says Blackhall. "You can use spaghetti squash instead of pasta noodles. Instantly you've got something healthier and it can be done in the microwave." Using old ingredients in new creative ways, like blending a batch of roasted vegetables to add to a meatloaf, doesn't take much time and makes your meal more balanced and heartier.

Unfortunately, there is a large localvore dilemma in Calgary. Outside of dehydrated and pickled food, it is hard to find local crop come February. "[Having a local diet] involves people knowing they can change their diet throughout the year," states River Cafe chef Andrew Winfield. Sarro agrees, noting that winter is a time for root vegetables, though it leaves localvores with few options. Even if you cannot shop local to your region year-round, you can still choose to purchase from B.C. growers and producers over international options.

I came across the question of authentic local food during my research. With the globalization of markets, we are now accustomed to eating foods that are out of season year-round as well as foods that are non-indigenous to our region. Is it now impossible to achieve an authentic local diet?

There is a mentality that buying local is better for the environment. Consumer awareness is crucial, as you cannot assume that all local farmers are producing pesticide-free crops or using environmentally sustainable methods in their farms. What the local movement allows consumers to do is have a dialogue with the farmers. "You know more about the philosophy behind the food -- what has gone into the food and how sustainable the food is going to be," Jackman explains.

With all this information in hand, I ventured into the 100-mile, or local food diet. October in Calgary is harvesting season, so the farmers' markets and shops carrying local food had out their best crop. The sense of community that local farmers' markets create can't be replicated in supermarkets. In conventional supermarkets, a gap exists between the consumer and farmers, and is widened by chains of processors, manufacturers, shippers, distributors and retailers. Going to the Hillhurst Farmers' Market, I was able to meet the farmers and talk to them about what goes into the farm's production. The markets were not just a place to purchase food and leave -- there were local artists performing on side stages and local artisans selling their creations. It was a real community of people who cared about the products they were selling. Despite its marginalized status, the local food community is thriving.

The Sunnyside Natural Market was my first choice to purchase groceries. Even though the venue is modest, they have local produce, grains and legumes. Volunteering at the university's community garden also helped to both curb my grocery bills and give me access to local produce. I never got the chance to get down to the Kingsland, Crossroads or Calgary's Farmers' Markets, all of which are open year-round. Getting to these locations is a bit of a task, especially if you do not have a vehicle.

Prioritizing is a big factor with localvores. While conventional foods are supposed to reach the same price as organics, the reality is they are currently more expensive -- to spend the extra dollars means budgeting. If I was going to be seriously investing in organic and locally-produced goods, I had to cut out buying beverages on campus. The amount of money I saved from not buying tea or beer on campus was enough to buy melons from Brooks at the farmers' market. I had to give up eating kiwis and mangoes for the week, but the local berries or peaches were just as delicious.

Partaking in the local food diet was easier than the raw food diet, but I started this diet during a time when local food is in abundance. If I had done this diet mid-winter, it would have been a far more expensive and difficult experience. I also had the advantage of having a circle of friends who are very supportive of local food movements and our potlucks were inexpensive ways to share great dishes. I noticed I ate more produce than usual because it was easier to come across and often the farmers had great deals for their bulk items.

For people who want to eat out but would love to support the local industry, Calgary does have a variety of places outside of farmers markets. Restaurants like the River Cafe and District Gastropub offer sustainable and local options. Slow Food Calgary and REAP also host events celebrating local food within the city feature local farmers and businesses that offer natural, organic, chemical free, green and eco-friendly living products.

Taste is a huge factor when it comes down to what we eat. The potatoes I bought from the farmers' market have made some of the best mashed potatoes I've ever eaten. The kale and lettuce I harvested were fresher than the batches I have bought at Safeway. The quality of local produce is something to be revered. If modified foods don't miss out on the nutrients, they miss out on the taste of local foods. "When you eat a strawberry they are not supposed to be white in the centre," tells chef Winfield. "If you go to Safeway or Co-Op they will be white in the centre. That's just something you miss out on."

You have to make a conscious decision to eat healthy while eating local. Like the raw diet, the regional diet is not a cure-all. The people I have encountered were proponents of healthy and balanced eating. Whether one finds that balance through consuming more raw or local food depends on their values. These are not just diets to the farmers and localvores, however -- they are lifestyles accompanied by conscious eating and supporting local and sustainable businesses. Involvement in this movement was enriching. I felt I was not only making better consumption choices, but also helping to create a self-reliant economy for my community -- something I was proud of.

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