Food for thought and action

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From where I live on the west coast, spring is already starting to sprout. But even if you live in colder climes, soon we’ll all be enjoying the first offerings of the new growing year, local seasonal delights like asparagus and fiddleheads.

For reasons of fostering good health, ensuring food security, reducing carbon footprints, and building community, North Americans are rediscovering what it means to eat local. Just look at the 100-mile diet, an idea born in Vancouver that has inspired people around the world to be more conscious of their food choices. Look as well at the local farmers markets springing up all over Canada in recent years. We crave more than calories; we crave connection to our food.

There’s much to be said for eating local. Fresh produce is typically more nutritious than the trucked in variety because the journey from field to table is shorter. Similarly, the carbon footprint of local food is smaller, especially if it’s organic. (Traditional agriculture emits carbon dioxide through transportation, fertilizer production and energy used for farming). Eating local also helps to develop mutually-beneficial connections between food producers and consumers.

With these principles in mind, the past couple of weeks have seen some positive developments on the food front in Vancouver.

On March 5th, Vancouver city councillors voted unanimously to amend the current municipal by-laws to allow backyard chicken coops (sorry, hens only) within the city. Vancouver is following in the footsteps of other cities in the region including Burnaby, Richmond, and Victoria, as well as some major American cities such as Seattle, Portland, and New York.

But before residents run out to build a cozy coop, they will have to wait until city staff develop guidelines that address avian influenza (“bird flu”), animal welfare, noise issues and a possible rise in predators. That will take a few months.

The same week Council voted in favour of backyard chickens, Mayor Gregor Robertson announced that a piece of the lawn on the north side of city hall will be dug up and designed as a community garden. Some of the food produced in the garden will be donated to people in inner-city areas this summer. Building the garden follows a recommendation from the Mayor’s recently created Greenest City Action Team, a group designed to enhance sustainability and make progress on the further “greening” of Vancouver.

Vancouver’s focus on community gardens goes back almost three years when the prior Council issued a challenge to individuals, families, community groups and neighbourhood organizations to establish more food-producing gardens in Vancouver. In addition to the obvious food producing dimension of these gardens, Council’s intent was to encourage neighbourhood livability, urban greening, community building, social interaction, crime reduction and exercise.

The goal set out at that time was to create 2,010 new garden plots by January 1, 2010 (tripling the 950 in place at the time). With just 11 months left until the Games, gardens are sprouting under bridges, on former gas station lots, and along boulevards. More than 1,620 have been created since the challenge was launched, putting the city more than 80% of the way to achieving its goal.

But it’s important to remember that our food experience goes far beyond where and how it is grown. After all, we’re eating more meals than ever in sit-down and quick service restaurants that create a host of environmental impacts.

André LaRivière, a former CBC Radio executive producer, recognized this fact and saw a complementary opportunity to foster a more sustainable regional food system. Three years ago, that vision led to the creation of a pilot project to “green” a dozen restaurants. Green Table Network (GTN), an enterprising non-profit, was born.

GTN looks at all aspects of a restaurant's operation and identifies opportunities to reduce waste, increase water and energy conservation, reduce pollutants, and serve food that features locally grown and harvested products. More than 40 restaurants and caterers, including the best in the city, are now Green Table members. The goal is to grow the network to 500 in the next couple of years.

Green Table is already generating waves well beyond Vancouver. Restaurant & Catering Australia, that country’s industry association, has modeled Green Table Australia on the B.C. program. Meanwhile, foodies in other cities like Toronto are looking to lure the program there.

This spring, take the opportunity to consider your food, how it is grown, where it comes from and how it is served. Then make choices that will nourish your body, your community and the planet. Bon appétit!


Local food is an avenue to build community and this is something that's easy for people to understand and adopt in their lives. There's this really cool program developing across the US building gardens in high schools across the country. If you've got some ideas around how to build and scale local food production check out this research and community building tool:

Posted by: Saul Brown on March 31, 2009 9:19 AM

Chickens in Vancouver ! How fantastic!!!

Posted by: Cindy Schafer on April 2, 2009 10:09 PM

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