'100-Mile Diet' authors Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon share their favourite local food programs from around the world with eager hometown crowd at the Museum of Vancouver, unveil new Eat Your History mini-exhibition
It's been five years since their book, chronicling their trials and tribulations of eating locally for a year, was published. It was a year that saw a huge shift in the ways we think about food, thanks largely to their 100-Mile Diet, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.
One spin-off from the books phenomenal success is that Smith and MacKinnon’s lives have become subject to invitations from all over North America to sample and partake in various local food programs.
Their recent talk, part of the M.O.V.’s Food & Beers talk series in association with The Tyee (where the 100-Mile Diet first appeared as a series) and The Tyee editor David Beers, summed up 10 of the more inspirational initiatives the two have come across in their travels. (Vancouver get two mentions, but I think they may have been playing to the local crowd; there was some Ontario bashing too.)
10 of the world's best local food programs:
1. Vancouver — City Farm Boy
Ward Teulon of City Farm Boy sets the bar for the urban agriculture movement. As well as selling raised garden beds to help people grow their own fruit and veggies, Ward also grows more than 40 different crops in 14+ backyards and rooftops around Vancouver. The garden owner takes a share of the vegetables and Ward sells the rest at the farmers market and weekly harvest boxes.
Similar Vancouver local food program: If you want to start growing your own but haven’t got the space, or have the space but not the time or inclination, the Vancouver yard sharing program Sharing Backyards connects yard owners and avid gardeners to get the most benefit for the most people.
2. Ontario — Certified farmers market & governmental commitment
A few years ago Ontario residents had major problems with their farmers markets. Trucks were coming from miles away (including south of the border) and passing themselves off as locally grown. Then the goverments got involved, admittedly not always a good thing, but so far, so good. The municipalities set up certifications for farmers markets, and now eight cities in Ontario specify that suppliers must be within 100 kilometres. Besides the food being super local, initiatives lke this foster strong, diverse agricultural regions.
City halls also started to guarantee that they would buy a certain percentage of the foods (for hospitals, schools, etc.) from local growers. The goal for Toronto is 50 percent, for the University of Toronto it’s 20 percent. That’s $250,000 per year going to local growers.
Local farmers are also being encouraged to employ sustainable practices, racking up points for: energy efficiencies, labour and animal welfare, organics and diversity.
Similar Vancouver local food program: Check out Vancouver’s farmers markets. They now run all year round. UBC also buys a certain percentage of foods from the UBC farm; though, unfortunately, the U of T puts them to shame: Last year UBC spent just $3,000 on UBC farm produce.
3. Maine — Winter farming
Some of the best developments come out of sheer desperation, and the combination of freezing Maine winters and recessions in factory towns can be pretty compelling motivation. Elliot Coleman grows all year round by using movable hoop houses, which comprise a simple metal frame and a double layer of plastic. In fact, he grows 40 percent of his produce between October and May. The so-called incubator farms took off during the recession with a dose of desperation and federal funding in equal parts.
Similar Vancouver local food program: The UBC farm has a comparable operation, and there's a proposal out for a similar initiative in Richmond.
More importantly, the hoop houses can be cheaply created on a variety of scales and can be packed up when not needed. If you have space for a garden you have space for a hoop house.
4. Manhattan, NY — Provenance, local wheat and farmers’ markets
That’s right, Manhattan, the downtown core. Five years ago when MacKinnon and Smith were looking for publishers in New York, the 100-mile concept was poo-poo-ed as a West Coast fad that would be impossible on the East Coast. Now, New Yorkers have 39 farmers markets to choose from throughout the week (27 markets up to four days a week). The stalls all feature maps showing the locations of the farms (which have a median distance of 90 “food miles”).
Two other initiatives out of New York City include one to encourage local wheat production and one training new farmers. In order to foster local wheat production, the Green Market Society is funding the building of a local mill; to ensure there is a demand for it, bakers at the market are obliged to use 15 percent local wheat in their breads. New farmers are being trained at Cornell; many of these “new” farmers are new immigrants to the US who bring and share traditional framing method from a variety of cultures.
Similar Vancouver local food program: In this cold, hard, money-is-king world, the best way to support local produce is with your wallet. So plug into a local green box program or head down to your closest farmers market, and check out The Flour Peddler for local, pedal-ground flour (learn about another local wheat program, Urban Grains, below).
5. Los Angeles — Fallen Fruit
On first hearing, the people at Fallen Fruit sound a little overzealous. They believe that access to free food is a basic human right. What started as an art project creating maps showing fruit trees that grew on, or hung over, public property (in California, once a bough hangs over public property it becomes public property). Fallen Fruit now give away fruit trees as long as the recipients promise to plant them so that some of the branches hang over into the public domain.
As well as mapping the fruit trees, Fallen Fruit lead foraging tours and jamming projects using public fruit. The maps around California, Colorado, Colombia, Spain and Sweden present a phenomenally novel way of viewing a community.
Similar Vancouver local food program: I haven’t found anything that matches Fallen Fruit in Vancouver but the foodtree offers a map to help you find local farms and restaurants serving local food. At Shared Harvest, also known as a "Craigslist for foodies," you’ll find other food enthusiasts sharing tips, and food.
6. Villanueva, Spain — Old versus New
Europe is often touted as a local food Mecca. MacKinnon and Smith found this perception to be based on fact but largely romanticized. While many of the old traditions, such as public grazing for cattle, were still in place, many of the traditions weren’t being incorporated into modern lifestyles. One of the practices that impressed Smith was the implementation of Denomination of Origin. We’re familiar with this sort of thing with wines and cheeses (Champagnes from Champagne, Camembert from Camembert etc.) and though it can feel a little precious, it ensures that regional specialties are preserved. As a result, people travel to Villanueva to try the Asturian Cider for which the region is renowned.
Similar Vancouver local food program: Thanks to the local food movement, we’re beginning to see a revival of Canadian heritage foods such as Red Fife wheat, but does Vancouver have a food or drink that we can claim as uniquely ours?
7. Napa — Embedded diversity
The story of Napa is more of a lesson in what not to do. In Empires of Food, authors Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas state that the strongest food system incorporates “embedded diversity, i.e., an emphasis on local specialties accompanied by a diverse range of other foods. Napa’s arable land went from 27 percent vineyards to 99 percent in a short space of time. The success of the wines meant that the land became too expensive to grow anything other than wine, so orchards were pulled up in favour of vineyards. The Napa Valley is trying to reverse the trend by linking farmers-to-be with available land (crop-sharing, leasing, etc.), organizing small loans and linking older farmers with youthful counterparts.
Similar Vancouver local food program: A similar fate is befalling the Okanagan. Supporting the wine industry there is great but we’re reaching a point where supporting the fruit and vegetable industries there is paramount to maintaining the diversity.