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Vancouver comes up short on local food, say 100-Mile Diet authors

The St. Lawrence Farmers' Market in Toronto. Photo by Alexandre Moreau

On November 25, the Museum of Vancouver and Tides Canada played host to Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, authors of The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating as part of Tyee editor David Beers' Food and Beers speaking series. The book itself, which chronicles Smith and MacKinnon's year of restricting their diet to items produced within a hundred mile radius of their home, was not the main focus of the evening.  The focus was on  how Vancouver compares to other cities in its support of local food producers.  Turns out, Vancouver could stand some improvement.

The authors discussed Toronto, which once upon a time, they said, had absolutely horrible farmers' markets. Toronto has since improved to the point where Eastern Canada has surpassed Vancouver by a wide margin. The University of Toronto earmarks $350,000 of its food budget for locally produced consumables. Neither SFU nor UBC have a similar policy. In addition, many Ontario municipalities devote a sizeable portion of their budgets to locally produced food. Where Vancouver does best Toronto is on the matter of things Vancouverites can do on private property. Keeping chickens and beehives less than thirty metres from property lines give Vancouver a farming edge. Chickens are contraband in Toronto, possibly as a favour to the chickens.

Curiously, where the local food movement has especially taken off  is in Michigan, the authors said, particularly in regards to winter farming. This is primarily because of the economic argument for local eating: if people support producers in their area, their local economy will be less horrible. You can understand where this would have appeal in cities such as Detroit or Flint, where the economy has not so much as 'gone south' but is 'wintering in the Antarctic'.

Winter farming is achieved through aid of the hoop house, which is a type of greenhouse that is mobile and heated entirely by the light of the sun. It remains warm enough through the winter to allow for substantial yield; Smith and MacKinnon gave the example of Maine farmer Elliot Coleman, who manages to grow $140,000 worth of produce during the year on one and a half acres, 40% between October and May. There are murmurs of setting up such a farm at UBC, but unfortunately no one who holds the actual purse strings is onside yet. Also, cultural barriers exist that prevent widespread adoption of these methods, mainly because of those who believe that the success of hoop houses is due hidden heaters of some other trickery.

A hoop house in Missouri.

Next, the topic turned to New York City, where a mere five years ago a 100-mile diet was considered to be impossible. (Although this begs the question: what do the city dwellers suppose is in the rest of the state?) Since 2002, the amount of farmer's markets in Manhattan has doubled to 27 locations open four days a week. This is equivalent to one farmer's market per 41,000 people, compared to Vancouver's one per 150,000.

An oft-ignored source of local food is the fruit trees and bushes that can be found in most cities, but the trick is finding them.  An artist-founded and run organisation called Fallen Fruit aims to fix that by creating maps to publically available free consumables in Los Angeles, from which any enterprising soul may forage. They give out free fruit trees to city dwellers on the condition that some branches reach past their property and onto public spaces, give foraging turns and infuse vodka into the fruits of various neighbourhoods in order to test their taste.

Smith and MacKinnon then raised the matter of Europe, which has been romanticized as a local food paradise. The example they gave was a village in northeast Spain, with a nine hundred-year old church and cattle-raising habits that go back even further. While the Spanish regulatory system of Denomination of Origin and the area's natural park status helps protect the beef and dry apple cider production in the village, it does not solve everything. The chestnut trees, abundant in the area, are not covered under the Denomination system and are neglected. In addition, Smith and MacKinnon could not find any of the locally produced items in the stores; those were filled with branded products from far off places. Vancouver overall, they said, has better farmers' markets, and better soil.

The talk concluded with examples of some local buying do's and don'ts. The negative example came in the form of California's Napa Valley, which is now 99% wineries. As was pointed out, historically speaking, societies have tended to collapse when their food supply failed - hence the dangers of an overly specialised landscape. The area is now desperately trying to bring back diversity, through such methods as California Farm Link and low interest loans, the latter for which there is no funding. Vancouver is good so far as diversity goes, but a warning may help serve to keep us on the straight and narrow.

The good example was Salish Sea Trading Cooperative, co-founded by
two members of Sustainable Ballard, and a member of BALLE. They sail up to Olympic Peninsula to acquire organic food grown by the farmers to be found there; a scheme which suits everyone's needs nicely. Smith and MacKinnon suggested a similar sort of scheme could be arranged with the Gulf Islands.

Afterwards, we were shepherded upstairs to feast upon little delicacies made entirely from local ingredients. The cheeses in particular met my snobbish satisfaction.

The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating is available in many fine bookstores. Order it online if you want to be ironic. The next episode of the Museum of Vancouver's Food and Beers speaking series is "Vancouver's New Food Writing," on December 8th at 7 PM.

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