There are many reasons for choosing to eat local food. Food security is one concern. As the Nanaimo 100 mile diet website, www.100miledietnanaimo.com puts it: "It [eating locally] ensures a more stable and reliable food source. Food security is a big issue here. If you haven’t noticed, we live on an island. Which means that if we’re not growing it here anymore, we’re depending on somebody else to grow it and bring it over here.” As the cost of fuel rises, the "bringing food over” looks like a less and less attractive option. Other reasons for wanting to eat locally include a desire for organic produce. Often, locally grown food is organic, or if not officially organic – a designation that can be difficult for farmers to get due to a number of factors – at least not sprayed, or, in the case of meat products, routinely medicated. And there are, perhaps even more importantly, ethical considerations. Most people in today’s society are juggling a myriad of time commitments and responsibilities. Because of this, the distant, often chemical drenched, and poorly-paid worker-driven origins of much grocery store food is typically something that people may be aware of, but that tends to fade into the distracted modern subconscious with the thought: "Oh well; that’s just the way it is.” And it is true: right now, that is pretty much the way it is.
But does it have to be? Whether we realize it or not, our choices at the supermarket are a little like voting: it is easy to see them as meaningless, because a solitary choice appears so puny in the face of "The Way Things Are”. But dollars, like votes, do add up, and it is these very dollars that directly fund the companies, systems, and institutions that put these products on the shelves. Prior to writing The 100-Mile Diet, J.B. MacKinnon had travelled to a Haitian sugar plantation. In an article published in a September 2005 Globe and Mail, he described an old plantation worker who had worked the cane fields for much of his life, and who, on his last day of work, had nothing to show for it but memories of hunger, a child size backpack of possessions, and two completely worn out hip sockets. In a similarly disturbing and food production-related vein, PETA at one point obtained footage in the large slaughterhouse – AgriProcessors–of workers ripping trachea from the bodies of living cattle. The covertly obtained footage revealed a fast, bloody, assembly line that possessed all the civility of a lion pride feeding on still struggling, downed wildebeests.
But the scene was carnage outside of any natural context. No wild animals forming bonds with and relating to one another, or wide open savannahs: just long floors, running with blood, and hooded men moving speechless, and methodical with their razor blades and hatchets, among an endless stream of dying, throat-less animals. Most slaughterhouses are not as brutal as the one PETA exposed, and not all long distance sugar has such a chequered origin. Many long distance products’ only offence is being trucked many thousands of kilometres to arrive at the store, adding destructive CO2 to the environment. Still, there has been food on the store shelves that was produced under similar conditions as those described above, or under other equally painful circumstances, and it is dollars spent that keep it coming. Sometimes these dark histories are vaguely known – people know for instance that large slaughterhouses are, even at their very best, institutions of routine, unemotional, assembly line killing.
Other times, it is almost impossible to know anything, because the food comes from so far away that its path is outside of an average shopper’s ability to trace. All of this stands in stark contrast to the merits that food is usually advertised on: "garden fresh vegetable stew, home-style”, or "potato chips; hand cut” proclaim packages. Egg cartons bear the images of plump, cheerful looking chickens, and steak packages display pictures of peacefully grazing cattle. Food is marketed to appeal to what people long for, which is often community, health, freshness, and happy families and neighbours–both human and animal– whether the reality of its making has lived up to the ideal or not. But choosing local food has the potential to foster all these things in a way that participating in the current globalized industrial food system usually can‘t. Dirk Becker of Compassion organic Farm says, "the 100 mile diet is simply a tool to reconnect with ourselves, the earth, and every living thing.”
The book, The 100-Mile Diet, has inspired what many have labelled a trend of local eating. Even with this trend at play, most food consumed on Vancouver Island still comes from the grocery store. For farmers, who have the space and the know how to grow, eating locally is obviously a possibility. Becker says he is "on the hundred foot diet,” referring to the fact that he gets much of his food right out of the backyard. Those without farms may need to rely on finding places to buy local food, but even for the relatively landless, there are some growing options. Jessica Snider is the executive director for Nanaimo Community Gardens. She says that the community gardens run several programs designed to help people obtain fresh local food and that there is an increasing interest in the programs. "People are beginning to realize that eating locally reduces the impact of things like industrial agriculture and long distance transport,” she says. The Nanaimo Community Gardens has had an educational food garden on Pine street for years. "Anyone in the community can participate,” says Snider; "skill level doesn’t matter.” The Pine street garden is grown collectively, and the produce from it is shared among the volunteers. The organization is also working on creating an online registry that could potentially match unused land with interested gardeners, although this service is not yet operational. Additionally, Nanaimo Community Gardens runs a fruit tree gleaning program from July through October. "The essence is to facilitate access to all excess grown in backyards.
There is a large amount of food grown, particularly on fruit trees," says Snider. Albert Seibold is a Nanaimo resident with yet another piece to contribute to solving the local eating puzzle. He has been growing his own food for decades. He moved into Nanaimo from a remote homestead after he grew tired of the isolation, and found that despite the move, he did not have to give up on gardening, and could still produce substantial amounts of his own food in town. He says that anyone with yard space can produce food provided they are willing to give up their lawn. Seibold has also experimented with making and selling "balcony planters”; tall tiered pots which "weigh about as much as a fridge”, and are meant to have vegetables planted up their sides to maximize space. "Cucumbers and cabbages work really well because they just hang over the sides,” Seibold says. Bill Earthy, who had, up until the middle of last October ran the Shady Mile Market and petting zoo on Jingle pot road, says that if you have decided to follow the hundred mile diet during the winter, and haven‘t preserved any food during the fall, "you’re going to be eating a lot of potatoes, cabbage and turnips.” Even then, Earthy has seen the supplies of these particular items running low more often than they used to. "We used to last until almost the springtime with vegetables for sale, but last year we were out before Halloween,” says Earthy.
Earthy attributes the lack of winter vegetables partially to an increasing demand for local veggies, but mainly to a dwindling supply of the same as more land on the island is diverted away from its traditional use as farmland. Earthy himself closed his operation offering local food from apples to free range chicken because he couldn’t seem to get enough regular business. He says there is interest in local eating, but a lack of action. This he believes is because of the convenience factor that grocery store chains offer by having so many goods under one roof. "When you go into a grocery store and you can get cookware, clothes for the children, and fruits and vegetables; its hard to compete with that,” he says. The future of Shady Mile Farm, though is hopeful. Earthy says that the market will be back in some capacity this year, although he is not sure what its focus will be as it has now changed hands. However, the fact that Earthy had to shut down at all does underline the risk posed by too many people eschewing local offerings in favour of convenience. Operations and especially farmland, once lost, can be difficult to revive again.
Earthy says that "one of the things that people don’t realize is that if we have our food supply fall into the hands of two or three big businesses, soon everybody has the same prices, and they’re high, and you get stuck paying what they want for whatever they serve you.” He compares the possible future of food to the present reality of other commodities that are currently controlled by a handful of large companies. Now that Shady Mile market is out of the picture (at least for now) there is one less place to buy local animal products. One business still offering them though is Piper’s Meats on Bowen Road. Pipers’ pork is supplied from the Okanagan, and the chicken is local, and antibiotic free. Gordon Piper, part owner of the establishment, says there is a rising demand for local products.
"In all of our local products, the flavour is much better and not having antibiotics, and growth hormones, that’s a big thing for most people,” he says. Many people worry about the cost of eating local food. There are items that are more expensive. However, Earthy says that he felt his prices had been comparable to Superstore’s much of the time, and used the example of his apples, which he says were normally about 99 cents a pound. Bill Earthy says, "Just eat as local as you can. Find out what is in season, seek it out, and eat it.” To contact Nanaimo Community Gardens, call 250-816-GROW. Further information about local eating in Nanaimo can be found at the following websites:
Lia Light is a writer in Nanaimo. This article was originally printed in the Navigator Newspaper of Vancouver Island University (www.thenav.ca).