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FoodTree brings food back to its roots

Nicalo admiring a bottle of wine from Renato Fenocchio and his wife Milva Giacone

Chef Anthony Nicalo's relationship to food changed during a trip to Italy. To teach Nicalo and his friend, another chef, about charcuterie and sausage making, their host Renato Fenocchio showed them the art of butchering a pig. The following day, while seated around the kitchen table, the Italian farmer offered his guests a sample of homemade wine from a plastic pitcher. "It was some of the best wine I had ever had," Nicalo remembered.

At the time, Nicalo had been a professional chef for six or seven years. "I thought my job was to find great ingredients and not mess them up. But here was a farmer who took that idea a step further. He grew the ingredients himself."

Back in Canada, Nicalo was inspired to create Farmstead Wines, an import agency that works with farmers who make their own wines. The most important part of the business for Nicalo was to create a relationship between consumers and producers. By telling the stories of each farmer, he sought to connect them to the supply chain and to those who purchase the wine. Nicalo also wanted to make available every last detail about each bottle of wine - from total sulphites to how growers handle the pruning remnants - and explain to consumers why that might matter.

"Today it’s not normal to know where your food comes from. What we’ve lost is our connection to the earth and our ability to appreciate it and respect it and try to work in harmony with it," Nicalo said. Creating relationships with food producers who maintain that connection with the land is important to our humanity, he said.

Nicalo soon realized he was onto something that other businesses, from individual farmers to larger manufacturers, would find appealing. "I knew from my experience as a chef that there were lots of other food businesses that needed help communicating their story," he said.

And so, FoodTree, an online compendium of local food sources, was born. FoodTree allows users to trace the histories of food offered in restaurants and farmers' markets. The site makes it easy to determine how that medium-rare steak arrived on your plate. For example, click on Habit Lounge, a trendy Main Street diner, and you will see that they source their beef from Pemberton Meadows in North Vancouver. The cattle farm boasts health-promoting practices including pasture-based ranching and no GMOs. 

FoodTree recently won the People's Choice Award at Launch Party Vancouver, a celebration of local start-ups.

Nicalo hopes that his site will increase the transparency of our food systems, so that users can readily access information on farming practices, shipping methods and labour practices. However, he doesn't believe that consumers should become local food puritans.

"What we do is often too reductionist. As humans in general, we think that we’ll get to one word and we will solve the problem, but that’s obviously not true," he said. Rather, Nicalo suggests that people buy local and sustainable food most of the time, and allow for the rare deviation on special occasions.

He also points out that local is not necessarily always better for the environment. "If you buy ingredients at the farmer's market that were shipped a couple of hundred miles in an old truck, they will have a higher carbon footprint than a product shipped by ocean freighter," he said.

The problem, according to Nicalo, is that many of the solutions for revamping our food systems are based more on politics than on healthy, functioning ecosystems. An alternative is to focus on foodsheds, which Nicalo describes as food systems that operate on watersheds. So instead of eating tomatoes from the interior of BC, you might purchase food sourced from across the border.

"If we don’t improve the way that we are feeding ourselves, we will destroy vital resources, from an economic and health perspective," Nicalo cautioned.

The local food movement has its  critics. Elitism, the negative economic impacts on the economies of developing countries, the restriction of consumer choice and the accuracy of the movement's claims have all been levied as critiques. But Nicalo's answer with FoodTree is to allow consumers access to as much information as possible so that they are able to make informed decisions.

"I might care more about the environment, someone else might care more about the health impact of food, someone else might care more about price, but we have better information to make those decisions.

"FoodTree is a platform for you to be able to make choices that you are happy with." 

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