Eating locally for strong communities
We’ve all seen it: the little sign in the store window. “Shop local,” it says. Now, more than ever, it is important for us to support our local communities. I believe that it is especially important for us to support our local food producers. Not just buying food that is made in your community, but food that is grown in your community. Last Spring, I attended a webinar that had green leaders and food groups across Ontario discussing how we could make Ontario’s food system stronger. Stronger so that products don’t have to be shipped back and forth across the country or continent before reaching our plates weeks later. Stronger so that we don’t have to rely on distant others, especially during times of crises, to have healthy, fresh food available to us year-round.
Ensuring food is always available isn’t the only reason we need to rebuild the reliance and connectedness of our local food systems. Eating locally can have less environmental impact, can be healthier for us and can encourage community building. The more you are aware of and rely on your local food system, the more invested you will be in its growth.
Making hyper local food choices allows you to make connections with those who make your food and have a better understanding of what these producers do and need. We can hold each other accountable and have a say in the food grown and the methods used on nearby farms. You’re probably going to be more motivated to organize or reach out to local councillors to fight for better agriculture policies when there are direct impacts on the health of the food you eat and the land that produces it.
To reap the benefits of local food systems and contribute to its sustainable growth, you can do essentially three things: buy from local farmers, shop in locally owned shops or grow your own food. Let’s take a deeper look into each of these.
Buying from local farms has numerous benefits to both you and the environment. Locally harvested produce not only has shorter distances to ship and fewer opportunities for spoilage, but many local fruits and vegetables are likely to have higher nutrient contents because they are harvested later, consumed quicker and go through less processing.
Since you know exactly where your food is coming from when you buy from local farmers, you can communicate with producers and let them know that you care about sustainable agriculture. Lots of farmers in my area appear very proud of their practices and are happy to explain what they’re doing on their farms to reduce their environmental impact and promote social responsibility.
Depending on where you live, you’re likely to find a farm offering community supported agriculture, or CSA programs. These are programs where you pay farmers up front before the season starts and they commit to sending you a basket of fresh produce on a weekly basis once the harvest begins. This guarantees demand for the farmers’ products, allowing them to plan better for the season and use funds on the necessary early season inputs. Weekly baskets are either sent directly to you or to a central pick up location. The food is often delivered in reusable containers that you empty out or return each week. The program I’ve been apart of has even offered to take back plastic containers and jars they’ve used to deliver delicate or prepared foods.
Some CSA farms will offer opportunities for members to visit the farm and do some volunteer work. This allows you to see firsthand what is happening and make deeper connections with both those supplying your food and other CSA members.
If you aren’t able to commit to a whole season of products at once, there are other ways to support local farmers. Many areas will have summer or year-round farmers markets or on farm shops where you can buy your produce either directly from farmers or through a shorter supply chain.
Supporting local shops
Many local food producers and small grocery stores are owned by, hire and source from members of the community. They are a core part of the food system and ensure that more wealth circulates throughout the community.
It’s usually pretty easy to tell which companies use products from other local suppliers, they are proud of it. They make these connections for people and often either tell you where you can find the ingredients or sell them themselves. Often these places are more transparent about who they source from and how they are being socially responsible. My local ice cream shop sells some local artisanal goods and occasionally produce from the farms they get their ice cream ingredients from, creating a new platform for their products and allowing them to reach more customers.
Small businesses find other ways to support local suppliers and members of the community. Many will support youth groups or community charities. The bakery I get my bread when I’m unable to make my own offers a program where customers can buy an extra loaf that gets donated to a food pantry. My neighbourhood zero waste store, Nu Grocery, selects a new local charity every month where they will donate 1% of total sales that month. Do a little digging and I’m sure you can find out what companies have these types of programs, and if you discover that your favourite local shops aren’t involved yet, reach out to them and let them know you’d appreciate them becoming more active.
Kitchen and community gardens
If you have the ability, space, and time, growing your own produce is a great way to become self sufficient and more closely connected to nature. When you grow your own food, you know exactly what’s been added to it and you have more control over what you eat. You have put the time into growing it and so you will want to put those fresh vegetables and herbs into all your meals! Starting your own kitchen garden not only supplies you with fresh food, but it can increase green space in your neighbourhood and draw in pollinators.
If you don’t have access to land for your own garden, community gardens are a great alternative, they’re popping up all over the place in both cities and small communities. Having a plot in a community garden can bring you closer to the community group offering the space and are a nice chance to meet other members tending their gardens alongside you.
If you’re lucky, the growth in your garden may become overwhelming and you just can’t eat everything before it spoils. If you don’t have the time or space to preserve or freeze your excess (check out these two blogs for some info on fermenting and preserving food to keep your produce lasting all year long), the next best option is to donate the excess produce to your neighbours and friends. This gifting can strengthen your bonds with these people, and they may show their appreciation by returning the favour at another time.
If you want to actively grow produce for others, community groups are often looking for volunteers willing to tend their gardens. The food they grow is then given to local food pantries or community kitchens. This ensures there is fresh produce available and these groups don’t have to rely solely on the often-unhealthy preserved food that is frequently donated.
Just do what you can
If you aren’t able to regularly eat local, don’t feel discouraged. These are simply suggestions and it is important to only do what you can manage. Maybe once a month you visit the farmers market, or you occasionally buy yourself a special treat from a local bakery or you simply tell your friends about your favourite local places to shop to spread the word. Supporting local when you can in whatever way you can is what’s important and everyone has a part to play.
Stephanie is a Geography student, Ottawa Riverkeeper Youth Water Leader and Ocean Bridge Alumni who spends most of her time reading, walking, and volunteering.