Have you ever considered growing your own food? Leslie Carson and Janet Music discuss how they see local food playing unique roles across industries.
Welcome to In the Weeds, a podcast dedicated to discussing everything to do with food sustainability in urban agriculture, indoor growing, food insecurity, resource consumption and anything else we think is exciting or important. I'm your host, Avery Parkinson.
Today we're going to be talking about eating locally sourced food. Oftentimes, this is much more complicated than just making a conscious effort to purchase from a farmer's market. It often requires a supply chain that works differently than the large scale supermarket system. Once in place. However, locally sourced food not only has health and taste benefits for the consumer, but can support localized economies and environmental health. We talked with Janet Music, Research Associate at the Agri-food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.
My name is Janet music, and I am the research program coordinator for the Agri-food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University. And we're really a partnership of faculties. So computer science, management, agriculture, arts and social sciences, and we take a holistic look at food - food and society basically, for Canadians.
A study conducted last year in partnership with the research firm Caddle asked 10,266 Canadians about local food: how they define it, whether they would pay extra for it, whether they actively seek it out and more. What did the study find?
So that study is interesting. And it ran in October. So you know, people had fresh food still in their mind from the glorious summer growing season. But we found that price is the key determinant of what type of food people buy. So organic, local, vegetarian, or not. And so price really drives consumption. It's been like that before the pandemic and it will be like that after the pandemic. And so, specifically for that study, we found that over half of those people said they wouldn't spend more than 10%. And 20% wouldn't pay anything extra for local food. And some people eat with the environment and with animal welfare in mind. And that's wonderful. And it would be great if we could all eat that way. But you know, not everybody is in the financial position to do so. And not everybody has the education to do so either. And so it's wonderful that, you know, so many people are taking to fresh veggies, but they don't last very long in your fridge. And you really have to know how to use them to make whole whole meals. You know, presumably, you could give your kid salad all the time. But, you know, I don't know many children would eat only salad for the long term. So there is an educational component. But definitely, price is the number one determinant on whether or not people are going to buy certain types of foods. We want food producers, not just farmers, but people who package food, who process food in different ways and who are in transportation to earn a decent living wage. And, you know, with the way we are set up right now, we would have to pay more for our food. And so are we willing to do that?
Clearly, most people aren't, according to that. And so, I mean, certainly getting people excited about producing their own food would help to supplement some of those issues. And so, you know, I think if one town is just growing all the apples and they don't need to ship any in the short term, that's very helpful. But again, it's like growing food is not easy, especially when you don’t have control over your climate. But, you know, we saw a lot of adverse weather event effects, right. So wildfires, drought conditions, your average office worker or food service worker or IT support is is not going to know how to overcome some of those really technical challenges that we don't give farmers credit for, because it's not, you know, it's not like it used to be in in the distant past. We're talking about farmers that are really scientists now.
We don't have that, again, it's perception. And so maybe if we start changing perceptions of where our food comes from and who - who actually is producing our food, then maybe people would turn more to locally grown food because they, in addition to supporting our local economy, want to support their neighbors, or, you know, their country.
The study also mentions that Canadians tend to have very different ideas of what constitutes local food. What are some of these distinctions? What do you personally think would be the most effective definition of local food?
You know, it's nebulous, this idea of local, you know, what's local? So by eating food from Alberta, is that more local than eating food from China? Yes, technically, but it wouldn't be considered local if I was in Newfoundland, for example. Certainly, there's an idea that, you know, there's this kind of concept where the less food miles your food travels, the more local it is. So if it's less than 50 kilometers from ground to your plate, then that is local. I think, though, because we're so rural, you know, Canada is basically a rural country with cities connected by highway. And so, you know, what is local food in Toronto then. So for that, you know, if it's less than 50 kilometers, then no one in Toronto is eating local, right. And so, I think, for most Canadians, when they're thinking about local food, they're thinking about food from their particular economy. So we're in Nova Scotia. And so when I think of local food then I would think of stuff from Annapolis Valley, which is about an hour and a little bit car ride away, maybe more. And so I think that is what most people are envisioning. So when I buy these apples, I'm helping a Nova Scotian farmer, and that farmer is part of my community. Whether or not, you know, I would never ever run into that person in the street, but I know that, you know, we're the same.
And so, and it's the same, I think, for, you know, larger provinces with more agricultural output. And so what is local food, if you're in a farming town on the prairies, is that, you know, there's the distinction that you grew most of your corn for shipment, but you have an allotment of your land for a garden, and that's local food. So it's not a simple concept, for the most part, it can be quite complicated, which is unfortunate, because it has value as a concept, but I think if we rigidly define it, then people are going to be excluded from it. And I don't know that it would be possible to feed everybody with the infrastructure we have right now with local only food. So I think that it might be, you know, in a city of 8 million people, like how big would your apple orchard have to be? And so I think we need to think through some of those more mechanical issues or logistics issues like how do we feed our population with food only grown in Canada. And we don't have that infrastructure currently.
Does that mean we can't have it? Absolutely not. And anything is possible, if there's will political will to do it, and not just from government but from households as well, like they have to people need to see the value in it and need to overcome some of those barriers like higher prices and so we saw less than half of the people are willing to pay more money for their produce. And so that will be a problem because, you know, we ship produce from other areas based on economies of scale and and we're managing to keep prices relatively low, because we order so much of it in but if we're paying farmers in Canada fair wage, and we should be paying everyone a fair wage all over the planet planet, but then food might become more expensive and that might not be tenable for for a lot of families.
So again, another thing we need to think through
Ahat are some of the measures that should be taken to close the disparity between the many Canadians who say they would pay a premium for local food, and the few who actually, you know, make it a priority or able economically to do this?
There’d have to be political will for that, you know, agriculture is a big part of our GDP. And because we ship a lot, we trade a lot of agricultural products, so a lot of grains that we grow turns into feed for cattle in other countries, and vice versa. And so that would have to be dealt with. And I don't know how that would happen. But also, you know, Canada is pretty far north. And so we would have to really take some steps to build that infrastructure so that we could grow more food year round. And so there's wonderful - I don't know if you've ever been to Iceland, or if you know anything about Iceland, but they have these expansive greenhouses where they're able to power because they have this thermal dynamic component to their landscape in which water is being heated by lava under the surface. So, you know, so they're able to power these things in an ecologically sustainable way that we don't necessarily have here. And so oftentimes we just think about, okay, well, we could just set up large greenhouses, but then, you know, where does the energy come from to power those large greenhouses. Is it just the sun? And so, they're very big, big pictures. So at the society level, but, you know, for individuals, I think what we're finding, especially in our research at the lab, is that people are turning to one another, to their neighbors, and to their family, but like, you know, Facebook, and, and other websites that teach you how to grow things for the first time. And I think the pandemic was one of those societal shifts that we did not choose, but it was kind of forced upon us, for people to kind of say, well, you know, I can't go to restaurants, I can't travel, I'm not allowed to see family and friends, what can I do to kind of, you know, fill my time and one of those things was growing food. And I think we could support that a little bit better with initiatives.
So you know, local governments could support that by providing information and seed groups, like nonprofit groups could expand community gardens, but also allow people to take community gardens home with them in a way. So here are the things that you learn here, and here's how you can transfer them to your balcony. So I think there's - there's an appetite, pun intended for this moment. And I think people have come to see that it is difficult, but it is so rewarding. But again, it's a short growing season. And so most of us, you know, most Canadians are a double income household and have kids and so they're not going to want to homestead over the winter when they're driving their kids to hockey practice and you know, gymnastics, right? So those are things that we need to think about - how we allow people to reorganize their time, to better incorporate food into their lives, and not just as a convenience, or the lowest cost product, right?
Have you seen any specific examples of this actually being, you know, done and done successfully.
There were several municipal governments across the country who really stepped up to the plate, so to speak, when it came to growing food and allowed for community gardens to take place on provincial land or municipal land. And so Brampton, Ontario had a really robust - so this was their second year gardening program for citizens in which they provided seed and soil and in a minimal amount of tools, you know, like little seeds and stuff for citizens to grow their own food. And so there has been this kind of shift in municipal governments to say, you know, okay, we could use our land a little bit better, and we can help our citizens help one another because a lot of the excess food we're finding people are growing, they're donating to food banks.
And so, you know, food banks are contentious. I know this, and it would be better if we didn't need them at all. But the bleak reality is that food bank usage is on the rise and so it has increased over the last few years. And so having fresh food donated to food banks is kind of a game changer for families that need it because they often just get processed food.
More than half of respondents said they'd pay extra for fruit grown locally in the offseason, such as in a greenhouse instead of the imported alternative. Why was this a surprising finding?
We're all guilty of this and it's, you know, we're coming into the dark season now it's gonna get cold and those fresh strawberries that we were eating just a couple of months ago will be a distant memory. And I think food is evocative in addition to being, you know, a right to life. It plays a central role in our celebrations and in our lives. And we turn to it for comfort and it brings us memories - good memories, sometimes bad memories, but it plays a larger role than just sustaining us or sustaining our health. And I think in terms of those cold, dark February months, having some local fresh strawberries that are like, indescribable, if you've never had them how good they are compared to what you get shipped in midwinter. I think people would absolutely go for a treat, like something like that, right.
And so I do think that people think even subconsciously, if they're not aware of how they think about food in their lives, they do recognize that this is something that they go through emotionally, there's an emotional attachment.
Fruit and veg in February, January, February, it can get kind of boring after a while, right? And, you know, January, we've all said, we're gonna get back on that treadmill and those salads and I think, by the end of January, if you're still with it, then you've got a really strong will. And so, I think, you know, maybe more people would stick to whatever a healthy lifestyle is for them if there was more locally produced fruits and veg.
That was Janet Music - Research Associate at the Agri-Food Analytics lab at Dalhousie University, for more information about their work visit dal.ca/sites/agri-food/about.html.
We also spoke with Leslie Carson, the manager of Food and Nutrition Services at the Whitehorse General Hospital. If you hear any noise in the background, it's because her conversation was recorded while Leslie was actually at the hospital.
My name is Leslie Carson. I'm the manager of nutrition services, dietitian services as well as the Diabetes Education Center at Yukon Hospitals. We're located in Whitehorse, part of the Yukon Territory. I've been here with the organization for over eight years.
You have over 20 years of experience in food service. What are some of the most valuable lessons about nutrition and sustainable eating you've learned during this time?
Employees, which make up 70% of your budget, really enjoy working with food, commodities, and raw ingredients. They like creating, they like growing, they like being challenged. And so when I was working at St. Joe's Health Center, I soon learned that most of the clients we were feeding were from an agricultural background, and farmers. And so I started buying more local food. And before you know it, we started having conversations about oh, I used to work at that farm or I used to work with that producer. And so it really fostered a sense of pride, not only among employees, knowing that they're working with local foods, and they're supporting local suppliers, but there's a connection to the clients that we were feeding.
So to me, it's all about connection and food can be a powerful connection, and also a healing component in a hospital state or a long term care facility. So getting back to 70% of your budget for employees is when your employees are happy and feeling that they're growing using their skills and that they have a sense of pride in what they're doing. They're going to be more likely to come to work, not call in sick frequently and so your employee budget will probably be better managed. If you have sort of disgruntled employees that are not growing, they're having to, you know, reheat frozen lasagna day after day, there's no sense of pride or connection. So there's a sort of underlying importance to making sure your employees feel a connection to the food as well as that they're growing. And so that means cooking with raw ingredients. And if they're local, that would probably foster more pride.
From a health perspective, why does eating local food make sense?
Eating foods closer to home makes not only dollar sense, but common sense. Dollar sense means that if you work with raw ingredients, like local potatoes closer to you know, coming from the ground, you don't have to worry about allergens or ingredient lists. You know that food can go a long way with feeding people. And so if you focus on more sustainable practices, like eating less dairy, meat, and focusing more on local vegetables, and here in the Yukon, there are more root vegetables, you can feed a lot of people and again, get a lot of nutrition when the food is close to home. The big part is, you know, not contributing to the carbon footprint where most of the food here in the Yukon has to travel up the highway 24 hours. So if you buy food locally, you're really having an impact on decreasing that carbon footprint. Because the food is just coming, you know, a couple miles up the highway.
From a foodborne illness perspective, buying locally means if there are any problems, they're going to be small and very local. When you start buying food from across the country or even from different countries across the world, when there's a foodborne illness issue, it is widespread and huge. When you buy local, this problem is likely much smaller, and likely wouldn't have a mass impact.
In Yukon, you've partnered with local producers and the First Nations Health Program to offer local Indigenous food to Yukon patients. Can you talk about that experience? Why do you mention specifically making an effort for food to have a cultural significance at the benefits of eating local in general?
So with culture, you know, every person has a right to have a unique culture. And when you're hospitalized or living in a long term care facility, it's really important that the food that we offer is culturally appropriate. Because food in most cultures is a big part of a healing journey for an individual. So if you have familiar, culturally appropriate food in a hospital setting, for instance, that the patient is going to eat, they're going to feel that the food is healing them. And it is honoring their culture. So it's about respecting the clients that you're responsible for healing, knowing your customers is really important.
So who are your customers? Here at Whitehorse General Hospital, 25% of our population are First Nations. So again, offering culturally appropriate food to those patients would be super important. But we do have a growing multicultural population coming to Whitehorse as well so we have more East Indian, Filipino, so again, catering to those cultures as well, having more familiar foods offered to those clients as well.
That was Leslie Carson, manager of Food and Nutrition Services at the Whitehorse General Hospital. For more information about her and her work, visit yukonhospitals.ca.
We hope you enjoyed this episode of our podcast. If you're interested in learning more about Just Vertical and our work, follow us @justvertical on Twitter, @just.vertical on Instagram or visit our website - www.justvertical.com Stay tuned for our next episode where we'll be discussing more about agriculture, food sustainability or really anything else important or exciting that we feel like talking about.