By Susanne Martin
They are among the great pleasures of summertime in Canada – visits to farmers’ markets, feasting on fruits and vegetables bursting with ripeness, and savouring other Canadian grown and produced foods.
While the growing and harvesting seasons’ natural bounty can help make buying local feel particularly special, Canadians who demonstrate a year-round preference for domestically produced foods not only tap into one of the world’s finest and safest food sources, they also support jobs in communities across the country.
Erin Ireland, a Vancouver food reporter and owner of To Die For Fine Foods, works out of a commissary kitchen shared by over 12 artisan producers. She says getting to know the local food community has led her to appreciate that “knowledge truly is power when it comes to food.”
“Supporting people who have a passion for what they're doing in my own community not only helps our local economy, but there’s a transparency to it – I know exactly what’s in my food,” says Ireland.
High-quality and transparent operating principles are equally important for Alon Ozery, who owns and operates Ozery’s Pita Break together with his brother Guy.
The Ontario bakery has grown from a small family business, run from the back of a sandwich shop in Toronto, to a commercial bakery that supplies retailers across North America. Despite this ascent, Alon Ozery says one thing that hasn’t changed in the bakery’s 18 years of steady growth is its dedication to producing wholesome, nutritional food.
“Even with the growing demand, we’ve never sacrificed the quality of our ingredients,” Ozery explains. When possible, the ingredients are locally sourced, with organic and spelt flours from Ontario and hard wheat flour from the Prairies.
What’s in the baked goods – whole grains, seeds and dried fruit full of nutrients – is important, but what’s not in them is also noteworthy, he adds, explaining that Ozery’s Pita Break products are free of artificial preservatives, flavours or additives.
While avoiding chemical additives limits the shelf life of baked goods, Ozery says it’s worth it. In fact, he has just produced a video in which he explains that “real food grows old; real food grows mold.”
It’s a message that consumers are embracing. Ozery says the philosophy that “our bodies deserve the best possible fuel” has found wide resonance and that customer feedback shows that consumers value quality natural ingredients above all.
Retailers have also bought into the concept and are helping feed consumer preferences.
In response to the demand for locally sourced foods, Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL) and 112 participating retail co-ops in Saskatchewan have partnered with 16 local vegetable producers. Called Grown at Home, the initiative has shown remarkable results, with producers delivering approximately 300,000 kilograms of Saskatchewan sweet corn, cucumbers, beans, cauliflower and other vegetables to FCL co-op stores last summer, plus later-harvested items like baby carrots, carrots, radishes, baby beets and beets.
Ron Welke, FCL’s associate vice president of food, attributes the popularity of the program to consumer preference for fresh, high-quality produce.
“The vegetables are grown through the producers' Prairie Fresh Food Corporation and we get them to market very quickly. They are excellent quality products and we find that customers are coming back and want more,” he says.
The result has been a boon for Canadian producers.
“We started several years ago with small growers. With our commitment, we’ve watched them gain the confidence to grow crops on a larger scale,” Welke explains, adding that this kind of partnership perfectly fits the mandate of co-operatives – to support the communities where they work.
Welke is sure that FCL will reach – and possibly exceed – its goal of selling 450,000 kilograms of vegetables grown in Saskatchewan this year. In fact, Grown at Home is doing so well that the co-op is looking to expand the program to other provinces.
While they might not be obvious to consumers, the behind the scenes high standards that influence the way fruits and vegetables are grown and handled in Canada are another reason to buy local.
Heather Gale, executive director of the CanadaGAP Program, says CanadaGAP is a food safety initiative designed for fresh fruits and vegetables. She explains that the program’s complete set of materials about best practices in production and packing, as well as storage, wholesaling and re-packing, is a resource for growers and distributors.
The standard has been available for almost 15 years and, in 2008, a certification component was launched. “Today, we’ve got over 2,400 companies across Canada that have a CanadaGAP certificate, proving that they’ve been following the food safety procedures. They’ve been reviewed by third-party accredited auditors and found compliant with the standard,” says Gale.
The impetus for the program came from buyers, who were looking for assurances that suppliers were following best practices, she says, adding that many retailers and distributors have now made certification through CanadaGAP or similar programs a requirement.
Gale says a recently launched re-packing and wholesaling component aims to get “the next segment of the industry engaged,” with the goal of implementing a safety system across the whole supply chain.
For Vancouver-based ‘buy-local’ advocate Erin Ireland, supporting a farming system where ethics and healthful practices are honoured, trustworthy and accessible is important for multiple reasons. Among them, she sees purchasing from local producers and vendors as a great choice that puts dollars back into the local economy and helps communities thrive.
“I also believe that many non-local foods – which are picked way before ripeness, then shipped thousands of miles across countries – don't hold a candle to the real thing. When it comes to taste, there is usually no comparison,” she says.
While that may be true, it’s also fair to say that Canadian consumers and food manufacturers are also fortunate to benefit from quality foods and ingredients sourced internationally – from coffee to certain fruits and vegetables and more – that simply aren’t produced at home.
The bottom line: a Canadian consumer trend towards the integration of more domestically grown and produced foods in meal plans is good news for all of us.