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Keeping It Local While Keepin’ It Real

Eating locally, seasonally, and sustainably

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Keeping It Local While Keepin’ It Real

The modern grocery store is quite a marvel, really—produce aisles stocked year-round with fruits and vegetables, yet nary a clue as to which season or part of the world you’re in. Greek salad fixings in the middle of January, fall squash in the springtime, spring radishes in autumn. Convenient, perhaps, but sustainable? Not so much.

We’re beginning to see that we’d be wiser to eat with an eye to the local and seasonal. But lest you figure any system that can deliver you fresh strawberries in deepest winter is still a system worth keeping, let’s quickly review some pitfalls of the everything-all-the-time grocery model.

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Distance

The number of kilometres our typical meal ingredients travel can easily reach the thousands if, for instance, we’ve got blackberries coming from Mexico (to Calgary = 4,500 km) or snow peas from China (to Toronto = 11,000 km). That’s an awful lot of energy spent in fuel and refrigeration to bridge the farm-to-table gap.

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Fragility

Supply chain disruptions, climate events affecting crops, volatile politics, and energy costs: relying heavily on imported food clearly leaves us in a vulnerable position.

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Nourishment

When crops are harvested underripe and bred to withstand long journeys, it often comes at the expense of flavour and nutrition. Meanwhile, a whole host of delicious and nutritious regional food varieties are absent from a globalized food system that can’t accommodate such diversity.

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Connection

If we allow our diet to be shaped by the land around us and the changing seasons, we’ll be rewarded with a rich sense of place—a sense that’s upended when region and time of year are no object.

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Responsibility

If a local farmer is sullying a waterway or treating their animals less than humanely, we’re much more likely to know about it than if it’s happening halfway across the world. There’s a healthy community accountability that we lose with distance.

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Opportunity

Our food system as it stands misses an array of opportunities to invest in our local economy, community interdependence, and our own agency and skills to feed ourselves.

Given all of this, let’s assume that eating in a more place-based way is a worthy goal. But in a region with a short food-growing window and when most of us don’t have the means or desire to spend our days homesteading, how can we feasibly do this?

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Check often

Within the grocery mainstream, one easy strategy for maintaining a local and seasonal ethic is to simply read labels. The stickers on produce and the labelling on bags, boxes, and cans are all going to tell us the country of origin, sometimes even down to the region. Label-checking has to be a regular practice, though—the same bag of apples that was coming from Canada in the fall may be from New Zealand as spring rolls around.

Try: Choose your own place-based eating parameters, then pay attention to labels accordingly. You might stretch the definition of local to include citrus fruits from the US through the winter, but once you see oranges, grapefruits, and lemons hailing from South Africa, you’ll know they’re off the menu.

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Put it up

Many of our ancestors lived without supermarkets yet managed to feed themselves year-round using methods including canning, dehydrating, fermenting, and cool storage (root cellar or cold room). Whether we’ve got our own garden harvest, a backseat filled with a u-pick haul, or a case lot bargain from the grocery store, we can borrow these preservation techniques (plus the modern freezer) to help offset our winter imports.

Try:  Acquire (new or used) the basic equipment to pursue one preservation method of choice, then skill yourself accordingly through a workshop, published material, or an acquaintance with the know-how.

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Situate

What would place-based eating be without considering our place and the type of food production best suited to it? On the prairies, we can explore local grains, seeds, pulses, and grass-fed beef or bison; on the coast, fish, seafood, and seaweed likely abound.

Try:  Investigate some less-obvious pantry items your region has to offer, such as honey or maple syrup, fats/oils, and herbs, and make one of them a new staple.

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Swap out

Ideally, we choose dishes well-suited to their season, such as roasted root vegetables in the fall and winter, or grilled asparagus in the spring. Otherwise, we need to approach our recipes with flexibility, ready to replace what’s called for with something more local/seasonal.

Try:  Winter tomatoes are typically neither local, seasonal, tasty, nor economical. Try approximating their bright flavour and colour using oranges or pomegranate seeds (in-season in the US); roasted peppers, red currants, or tomatoes frozen from summer; dried tomatoes or cranberries; Canadian canned tomatoes … you get the idea.

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Take advantage

Compared to our homesteading forebears, we enjoy a plethora of conveniences aimed at minimizing the time and effort needed to eat with place and season in mind. Many cities have year-round farmers’ markets where you can pick up everything from frozen meats and berries to pickles and dried fruit—the vendors having done the preserving and storing for you. Some farm CSA (community-supported agriculture) programs run through the winter, and many grocery box subscriptions make an effort to source local/seasonal year-round.

Try:  Search local food producers in your area and inquire with one or more of them about what they might have available over the winter and if they offer bulk or direct ordering discounts.

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Voice of experience

Since co-authoring The 100-Mile Diet (Vintage Canada, 2007), J.B. MacKinnon and his partner Alisa Smith have continued to source about 85 percent of their food locally. Mackinnon says, “The food is the greatest reward. I truly feel like I eat like a king.”

Yet their food budget isn’t that of a king: Mackinnon’s estimates it to be slightly below the Canadian median. “I think that’s because we make sure to buy what’s abundant and in season, I cook almost everything we eat at home from scratch, I make simple meals, and we eat far less meat than most Canadians. Being able to cook is pretty essential to being able to eat locally.”

Among the perks is the long-awaited tomato season: “It’s a big event in the year for us—something to look forward to. It’s like a festival that lasts a couple months.”

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Pocketbook hack

If expense is a barrier to purchasing local produce, try gathering it for free! Foraging for anything from greens and berries to mushrooms and then putting them up (preserving) for the off-season is a great way to save money, get nutrient-dense food, and engage with the land and its seasonality.

 

This article was originally published in the December 2023 issue of alive magazine.

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