British Columbia·Opinion

It's not just a fad — there's real value to eating local during this pandemic

We should foster a local food culture year-round, writes Joanne Will but now more so than ever during this COVID-19 crisis, we should support local farmers and food producers.

Let’s support local farmers and producers, regain control over what we eat and help build community

We should foster a local food culture year-round, writes Joanne Will. But now, more so than ever during this COVID-19 crisis, we should support local farmers and food producers. (Joanne Will)

This column is an opinion by Joanne Will, a writer on Vancouver Island who was raised in a farming community. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Many of us are stressed out over food, side-stepping down grocery store aisles to maintain proper physical distancing and making plans for long wait-times.

And what is this experience doing to us?

Recently, in a chain grocer line, I watched a gentleman berate store workers for enforcing the new rules. Under mounting pressure, we're in a win-lose competition for that last bag of frozen peas, stocking up on groceries  — whether we need them or not. If the worst is still to come, what will this crisis yet reveal of our better natures? 

But there is another way. There's a good chance a local farmer nearby has fresh produce, ready for immediate sale. This simple act will connect us to the local community of food producers and strengthen our community. 

'Talking with the farmer who grew this horseradish root was something I won’t get at the grocery store,' says Joanne Will. (Joanne Will)

The horseradish root I purchased last week caused no end of tears as I peeled and processed it in my kitchen.

But learning something new and having a locally-grown, homemade jar of heat and flavour in the refrigerator will warm my heart for days. And talking with the farmer who grew the gnarled root was something I won't get at the grocery store, as she enlightened me about the nature of horseradish and the nutritional properties of the duck and goose eggs she was selling.

These producers are all around us. On a recent walk in my Vancouver Island neighbourhood, I stumbled upon a small farm and left with 10 perfectly ripe kiwis for $3. Canadian kiwis! I had no idea. Soon I'll make jam, something I've never done. As badly as I may fail, it will taste sweeter knowing the fruit came from "farmer Pat," as he's known around here.

Will was surprised and delighted to find locally grown kiwis in the Saanich peninsula. (Joanne Will)

As people choose to reconnect with the lost art of bread baking and others get back to the land — even if just in their backyard — some local producers have seen a surge in orders, notably for flour, garden seeds and manure. Sadly, other producers are seeing barely a trickle of customers, in striking contrast to the grocery stores.  

That's a shame, because while local food is sometimes more expensive, that's not always the case and you get so much more value in the quality.

Over the past weeks, I've made a point of shopping at smaller, local producers, and what I learned surprised me. The soft, sweet kale I discovered locally was $3 for a large bunch and picked the day I bought it, while the grocery store kale cost the same and had been shipped from California weeks ago. Research confirms that nutrition is highest when food is freshest. 

While I'm not suggesting that every one of us dirty our fingernails in the soil, I am advocating that we at least try rejoining our local economy, using food to build community bonds that reach far beyond economics.

Robust local food systems offer immunity from food shortages, such as those caused by recent hoarding behaviour or what will surely occur if borders are further tightened by our neighbours to the south. And buying food from a local farmer adds a human connection to the purchase, increasing feelings of well-being and connectedness to nature, the farmers and each other.

Human connections are something we all need in this crisis.

Buying food from a local farmer adds a human connection to the purchase, says Will. (Joanne Will)

This participation transforms us from passive consumers of our food, to active participants in agriculture and in the nourishment of our bodies. In a period when more rules and restrictions are being imposed, we can still exercise the freedom to know the source of our food and what we choose to eat.

To those for whom going from farm to farm is difficult, such as those who live in cities, you should be able to source local food in independent shops until the farmers markets reopen.

Instead of regarding eating as something to be done with the greatest efficiency — which usually means processed or prepared food — let's acknowledge and appreciate the caring hands which grew those potatoes or parsnips. The joys of finding, supporting and getting to know local farmers are many, and have been lost by many as well.

But they can be found again.  

At a time when joy can seem in short supply, let's spend some of these unending days rediscovering the pleasures of connecting with food. If we don't patronize our local producers now, they won't be here tomorrow, and we'll be left to the mercy of a faceless, nameless "supply chain" for food.

Will said these meatballs, made with lamb purchased from Ruckle Heritage Farm on Salt Spring Island, was one of the tastiest meals she has made. (Joanne Will)

And let's make it the "new normal" long after this is over, learning not only how to prepare what we eat, but where it came from and the community of people that grow it ... for us.

Want to start a garden while spending more time at home? Watch these tips on how to grow vegetables and herbs from kitchen scraps.

How to grow vegetables and herbs from kitchen scraps

1 year ago
2:34
Egan Davis with the UBC Botanical Garden shares some tips and tricks for container gardening with minimal shopping during COVID-19. 2:34

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