Holiday feasts: Local foods boost community, holiday spirit

Helene Kennan feeds an average of 691,600 people each year. That’s close to seven million mouths in the past 10 years of her career as a chef in the hyper-populated city of Los Angeles. What’s even more amazing is that the incoming president of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs accomplishes this feat using local food.

“Sourcing locally takes time and effort,” Kennon explains. But there is a pay off.

“Forging relationships with regional farmers and food artisans has been beneficial to our kitchen and our guests,” Kennon says. “It is the cornerstone of community involvement and the bedrock of culinary responsibility.”

Kennon is not alone in this thinking. Around the world and across Canada, people are working toward making our communities healthier places to live, eat and work. As such, food security and accessibility has become a major component of sustainability – both environmentally and culturally.

At the centre of this philosophy is the local food movement.

As a result, more and more people are opting for local food sources for their holiday meals this season. For some it is a return to the source during a time of celebration; for others it’s a way to ensure minimal impact on a living planet. It’s also an opportunity for people to live, grow and eat within their immediate community.

Wide-ranging impact

“Eating locally is more than just about the food,” says David Connell, assistant professor at the University of Northern British Columbia’s School of Environmental Planning. “It’s a connection to where people live, a connection to one’s place in the world, and it’s a vital component in the concept of community and our need for intimate connection.”

Connell’s recent report, released in November, was an effort to try to quantify the benefits of a local food connection. Entitled The Economic and Community Impacts of Farmers Markets in B.C., the study shows an estimated $65.3 million is spent at the 100-plus farmers markets scattered across the province. “At first glance, the study was about economic impact,” said Connell. “But really, it was more a demonstration of the importance of the intangible benefits of a local food economy. It was an effort to take the intuitive and quantify it.”

As a principle, local food (also known as regional food or the 100-mile diet) is part of sustainability and green politics. It is the choice to consume food products that are grown locally – and a preference to support local economies and communities. The concept is often related to the notion “Think globally, act locally.”

Health

A belief in local food consumption also suggests that a change in the way food is produced and marketed, even a small change, will have a great effect on health, the ecosystem and the preservation of cultural diversity.

The connection between these tangibles and intangibles is what Dr. Harriet Friedmann continues to explore. As an expert in the sociological aspects of the world food system, the University of Toronto at Mississauga professor examines the connection between commodity chains and the impact socio-historical and political decisions have on a community’s cuisine and choices.

“The benefits of local food are many,” she says. “Most important is support for restoring a local agro-ecosystem.”

Friedmann explains that a reliance on “food from nowhere” that is transported over long distances diminishes a region’s ability to support local farmers and food processors, and undermines its ability to sustain and support itself.

She also points to the longer-term impacts of a “food from nowhere” system. “Climate change is needlessly worsened by long-distance shipping of foods that we can easily make and store nearby. Buying locally supports this shift — a shift from being part of the problem to being part of the solution.”

And Friedmann aims to be part of the solution.

“I recently prepared a meal of lamb, potatoes and vegetables – that included broccoli, carrots, parsley, sautéed with garlic and herbs – all from the local environs,” explained the busy professor. Friedmann even managed to locate smoked whitefish from a co-operative in Georgian Bay.

It’s about flavour, too

While she concedes that winter hinders local food production, she believes that even frozen locally grown is better than picked-before-ripe produce transported across the world.

“Local food actually tastes better most of the time,” said Friedmann. “What we gain [personally] is the excitement of seasonal produce – real strawberries and asparagus in season taste better when our palates are not jaded by year-round glamorous but tasteless versions.”

But what about your holiday dinner this year?

Is it possible for Canadians, regardless of where they live, to purchase, consume and enjoy local foods? According to Debbie Fields, executive director of the Food Share: From Field to Table program, yes, to a degree. But as more people choose to do so, the goal will become more attainable.

“It’s a process, not an either/or option,” explains Fields.

Because of monoculture-agriculture, eating locally has now become a difficult process, says Fields. For example, most wheat in Canada is grown in the Prairies. Strict adherence to local diets would mean provinces and territories outside of the bread-belt would not be exposed to grains and grain-products.

“What we try to do is source local,” said Fields. “This begins the critical process of engagement – the first step in agri-sustainability. It gets people thinking and asking questions about the food they purchase and consume.”

Fields suggests that people pay attention to labels and to try to pick options close to home. “If we vote with our mouths and dollars we will increase the demand, which will increase the supply.”

The next step, says Fields, is to talk about it. By discussing the local food option with grocery store managers, friends and neighbours we begin to generate interest and awareness.

The final step is to “actually begin to think and eat differently.” According to Fields, this means beginning to seasonally adjust our cooking, such as eating cabbage or beets, rather than lettuce, in the winter.

“It’s a step that enables us to understand and incorporate variety and seasonality into our diets,” she says.

When we celebrate, food enables us to share time with our friends and loved ones. The local food option allows people to take that extra — closer — step toward one particular aspect of the holidays: the notion of community spirit. By eating and buying locally, we are afforded the opportunity of giving back to our community, which, in turn, is giving to us. A local-food holiday meal is a chance to increase community spirit, stimulate the local economic development and ensure environmental stability.

All that in a Christmas dinner? You betcha!

Seasonal food to look out for this holiday season

Vegetables: Broccoli, cabbage, bok choy, brussels sprouts, savoy, carrots, cauliflower, celery, kale, mushrooms, parsley, parsnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes, spinach, squash, turnips.

Fruits: Apples, berries (including cranberries), currants, pears.

Originally published on CBC.ca on December 22, 2006