Is local Hamilton food better for you?

We tested produce grown in Hamilton to see how it stacks up against food shipped to your table from the U.S.
Sandy Morden of Morden's Organic Farm shows off some organic Arrowhead spinach. (Sheryl Nadler)

Less than 20 minutes from downtown Hamilton, the fields at Morden's Organic Farm are already filled with sprouting spinach.

But it's far more likely that a typical Hamiltonian's dinner table will feature imported spinach that travelled thousands of kilometers from farm to table.

Located in one of the most productive agricultural regions in Ontario, Hamiltonians have an abundant and varied food supply at their doorsteps, but it's not always the first choice.

As a result, are Hamiltonians losing out on the nutritional benefits of their own local food? It's just one question CBC Hamilton is examining as part of series of stories on local food — a topic the majority of Hamiltonians - more than 80 per cent of those surveyed - told CBC News they wanted to hear more about.

The test

CBC News sent spinach hand-picked at the local Morden's farm and its grocery store rival, Organic Girl baby spinach from California's fertile Salinas Valley, a 4,000-kilometre trip from farm-to-table, to a Mississauga lab for testing.

ILC Micro-Chem found that the local sample was "more nutritious overall." It fared better in a few areas, including Vitamin A, calcium and iron. 
Results courtesy ILC Micro-Chem.

The tests showed that California spinach had 20 per cent of the daily requirement of Vitamin A, while the local spiniach had 25 per cent, noted Hamilton public health dietician Vicki Edwards.

But Edwards cautions both spinaches — a vegetable generally a rich source of Vitamin A — are high in the vitamin known to help the immune system, vision and growth.

The nutritional advantage of local food is an issue 100-mile diet advocates have wrestled with for years. 

"It's a question we get a lot: 'Is it healthier to eat locally?'" says Kathleen Frith, managing director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard Medical School.

The single-analysis spinach test by a local lab doesn't supply a conclusive answer. When asked about overall nutrition, Edwards is quick to caution there's "not much of a difference." And experts say even a well-designed comparison would be difficult due to many variables, including soil, variety and handling.

The Boston-based Center for Health and the Global Environment looked at all the research on how local food might be more nutritious and concluded it's likely healthier, but not necessarily provable.

Reasons for the added health benefit vary. 

"The choices that affect nutrients are made right at the beginning: what produce are you going to grow that's going to be hardy enough to travel," says Frith.

Fruits and vegetables lose some nutrients as they spend days in a global distribution system. Farmers tend to select varieties based on yield and durability, rather than nutrition levels.

Bruising during handling can also lessen the nutrients, as can picking fruit before it's mature so it ripens in store.

"There are other things besides nutrition that might tempt you to buy local," said Edwards, citing freshness, local economy support and flavour.

Situated in some of Canada's prime agricultural land, the fertile Hamilton area is home to everything from wineries to cash crops to poultry and dairy farms.

"Just about every commodity imaginable in Ontario can be grown here," says Henry Swierenga, a member service representative for the lobby group, Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

But measuring the benefits of eating more of the local food is hard. The port city exports a majority of the local harvest, says Swierenga.

No information is available on how much Hamilton food Hamiltonians consume. Nor is much known about food-mile impact in Canada.

In the U.S., it is estimated domestically grown food travels an average of 2,400 km. Food policy analyst Rod MacRae suggests Canadian distances might be even greater because of our east-west supply lines.

A massive system

"The food system is massive and it's built not on locality," says Don Mills, vice-president of the Toronto-based local food certification non-profit, Local Food Plus. "It's built on price and year-round availability."

Even the definition of local food is ill-defined. The Local Food Plus certification organization uses provincial boundaries.

Though many talk of the 100-mile diet, others view it as an arbitrary number.

The majority of Hamiltonians-as with most Canadian consumers - get their produce from grocery stores, where local food is not often a large contender. 
Sandy Morden picks spinach in at her family farm in Dundas. The farm has been in her family since the late 1700's. (Sheryl Nadler)

Vince Scornaienchi, executive vice-president of Fortinos and fresh food development, acknowledges that local food is experiencing a "bit of a renaissance" in Hamilton,but says but it's not something that is easy to translate in large grocery chains.

The Fortinos grocery store chain, now owned by Canada's largest grocer, Loblaw Companies Ltd., has a long history in the city.

Scornaienchi's late uncle, John Fortino, an Italian immigrant working in the steel industry, opened the chain's first store on King Street in 1960. He saw that stores offered limited produce and meat, so began offering "fresh food" bought at the Ontario Food Terminal, says nephew Scornaienchi.

"There's a big movement towards local produce again," said Scornaienchi. The grocery store offers local produce - defining local as Ontario-grown - but no Hamilton-specific shelf. 

Though Hamilton-area farmland yields a wide array of produce, the season is short and there's not enough to sustain a place in the stores, says Scornaienchi. Strawberries are one of the key local items sold by the store - and are brought in from about seven area farmers.'

"We have 40% of the Hamilton market and to have them supply that constantly… you might be able to do it for a week or two but certainly not constant," he added.

But buying from local farmers may have extra benefits that no scientific test can calculate, suggests Harvard Medical School's Kathleen Frith.

"Chances are you're going to eat more fruits and vegetables if you interact with the people who grew them," says Frith. "And chances are it's going to taste really good."

"And you know you might have a really good time. You might increase your happiness index."