Early in my gardening journey, I was in the backyard of another gardener, Damian. While there, I told Damian’s mom that I was growing new plants and learning how to eat them. She said that she did the same thing when she became aware of it in the 60s, when her kids were young. She wanted good, healthy food for them, but back then it’s not like they could just walk into a Nature’s Emporium – that didn’t exist yet.
The steps she took were the ones I didn’t realize then that I would start learning in my local food journey. “You’re going to start gardening more, because it’s hard to find the food you want to eat,” she said. “You’ll have to learn how to cook new things, because the way you always make your meals won’t work.”
Doing the Schomberg Vegetable Box this year brought these memories back to me and made me aware that these steps are a common thing. When customers return each week for their vegetable box, I see the different parts of the journey that they’re at. We’ve been gaining more clarity on the steps to going local with food, which is why we made this blog post.
Going more local is not a change that happens overnight. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when facing the challenges that come up in the work involved. But we’re here to help! So without further ado, here are five steps to going local with your food.
1. Get your food in season
Are you dependent on the grocery store? Have you been worried about getting food at the supermarket lately? Are you more concerned than ever about having a strong immune system?
Local food checks off a lot of boxes here. When you can physically drive to your local farm to pick up your food, you can be confident the food will be there – it might even have been harvested just a few hours before. It’s living food that has nutrients and enzymes, and that has ripened in the earth, not in the back of a truck or in some warehouse.
But for those who are going away from the grocery store for the first time to buy their food locally, it can be challenging to not have as easy access to your favourite foods year round, as local food is based on seasonality. Here’s a few tips on what to do:
Make awareness your friend
What is seasonality? “Seasonality of food refers to the times of year when a given type of food is at its peak, either in terms of harvest or its flavour.” (Definitions.net)
It can be surprising to some to find out that certain produce is only available during certain times of the year, especially after years of shopping at the grocery store, where everything is available all the time because produce gets imported from afar.
Being aware of the seasonal availability of foods helps to adjust your expectations as you eat more local, in-season food. Check out this availability guide from Foodland Ontario to learn when Ontario fruits and vegetables are in season.
If there are certain foods you love and must have year round, buy in bulk when they’re in season, then preserve them. Common methods of preserving food are canning, dehydrating, and pickling, but there are others! This way, you can still enjoy your favourite foods when they’re no longer available locally.
Find an alternative that does the job
Find an alternative crop that gives you a similar culinary experience to the one you’re looking for. For example, winter carrots or sweet beets can fulfill the sweetness and bright colour that you enjoy in a tomato.
2. Learn how to cook local food
Do the things you normally eat come from another country? Have you bought local food but struggled to put it in meals, eventually throwing it out because it went bad in your fridge?
The problem could be that you’re using the wrong cooking tools and techniques for the new local foods you want to try. People often just continue cooking the way they always do in the kitchen, but this can make it much harder to prepare some of these foods.
Invest in the right kitchen tools
Once you get into the local food game, it could be time to invest in some new kitchen tools. You might not have big enough bowls or a salad spinner or dehydrator. Or if you only have a small version of a key cooking tool, it can limit how much you’re able to prepare at one time.
Making tomato sauce is a classic example. Those who’ve tried to make tomato sauce using their regular pots or pressure cooker have felt the pain of doing batch after batch of tomatoes. But if you have the right equipment (e.g. the right pot, jars, strainer, etc.) for the job, it becomes a very doable and efficient task. While you may still spend a whole day making tomato sauce, you’ll have it ready for the rest of the year.
Change up your cooking techniques
A lot of local veggies work well when dehydrated, fermented, baked, or sautéed, but these are techniques that many people have yet to try.
Sourdough is a good example of a cooking method that might be new to you – but if you want to make your own bread, and avoid the ongoing trips to the grocery store for a fresh loaf, it’s the easiest way. Not to mention, it tastes delicious!
For kitchen tools, you will need things like baking trays and a bread proofing bowl to make the task easier. If you don’t have them, making bread will be a challenge.
3. Learn how to eat new foods
Does your family complain about eating dishes with new foods or vegetables in it? Are you finding it’s a lot of effort to make healthier meals?
Eating is an everyday habit that you’re trying to change, so it’s going to take time to make the switch. Sometimes you’ll still eat things that are less healthy, but as long as you keep adding a bit more of the nutritious stuff, you’ll start to eat healthier over time. Plus, you’ll even find that certain unhealthy foods won’t be as appealing to you anymore.
Give your body a chance to like it
It takes time for your gut to respond to new foods at first. That means initially you might not enjoy the taste of, say, kale. It’s just because the kale is a new food that your body hasn’t adapted to yet.
But if you get past the hump, over time it’ll taste more and more delicious as your gut biome adapts to the food. Your body will actually make saliva that reacts with the food and changes the taste of it. And when the food is rich in nutrients, your body will quickly realize, “Oh, wow. I like this stuff,” and start to adapt.
Start “one leaf at a time”
Instead of introducing new foods to your family all at once, try adding just “a leaf at a time” (meaning, just a bit of fresh produce) to the meals you already make. You’ll give your body time to react and adjust to the new foods; and since your family is already used to those dishes, the new healthy foods will fly under the radar.
So if you’re making a sandwich, make it as you usually do, but add just one leaf of kale or chard that’s cut up into small bits. Add cabbage, carrot, beets, kale, and/or chard to your stir fry – any veggies you add will get really small (i.e., lost) in the cooking.
4. Grow Your Own Garden
Is buying good, organic food expensive for your family to do all the time? Do you trust that the food you buy is actually organic?
When people try to move toward more healthy eating, they typically try to buy all their food from the organic shelves. But while organic means the food doesn’t have herbicides or pesticides, it doesn’t necessarily mean the food has more nutritional value, or was grown ethically or in a way that was good for the ecosystem.
Ultimately, when you grow your food, there’s no question about it being fresh and local. It can also be a cost-effective way to supplement the other organic foods that are harder to produce yourself.
Grow your own garden
For those of you who do eat a lot of veggies, growing your own vegetables in a good-sized garden is worth hundreds, even thousands, of dollars a year. It’s also great for engaging kids and helping them to understand where the food they eat comes from.
If you have a garden, it’ll save you a lot of money on the veggies you really like to eat. It also completes the “vegetable experience”, if you will, because you’ll connect to the food and how it’s grown so much more.
Don’t have a garden? Start small.
Some people don’t have the space to garden, but even a few potted herbs and veggies can give you a deeper connection and pleasure around eating.
We worked with Lara Mrosovsky, a food educator, to launch her webinar on growing more food on just a balcony. We think she’s great! Check out some of her resources on food growing here.
5. Make Your Local Food Journey Sustainable
Are you finding it hard to make eating local food a habit? Have you been spending a lot of time and money trying to go local?
It’s challenging to switch to more local food by just throwing money at it. When going local, many people take the approach of trying to buy all their food from local sources, but it’s hard to feel completely certain that local is what they’re really getting. The truth is, “local” can sometimes still mean that the produce traveled from afar, defeating the purpose.
To sustain your local food journey over the long-run, here are some tips to consider:
First, be aware that this is going to take sustained effort on your part and a number of years to put the pieces together.
A good starting point is to just ask questions about your food and get curious about knowing where it comes from. Audit what you already eat by identifying what you consume a lot of or spend a lot of money on. For example, if you eat a lot of lamb or tomatoes, these foods will be the ones worth putting in more time and investment to source in a way that you want.
Grow your own vegetables
Many people decide to grow their own vegetables because they love eating a certain kind of veggie, but buying the kind of quality they want is difficult (it’s expensive and hard to get). So they start growing those crops themselves––one way to go local!
Buy with your community
Community buying is another strategy for going local without breaking the bank. Get together with some friends who are interested in eating similar foods and source them from smaller farmers or wholesalers that require you to buy in bulk. You can get what you want, while buying it at a cost you can afford.
Support a local farm
Invest in local farms and other types of programs that allow folks to sign up for a share of their produce, just like with our Schomberg Vegetable Box!
It’s a different model of getting your food. When you want a nice, red tomato, the idea is not to just go to the store and buy that one tomato. Instead, you sign up for a season with the farmer and get your nice tomatoes when they’re in season. It’s a different kind of relationship that you have to build, but it’s a great way to know that you’re really going local.
If you’re trying to go more local, buying fancy packaging with labels won’t be what fulfills the connection you’re trying to find to your food. Instead, you need to change up your strategy for going local, and invest your time and some of your money to get there.
It’s common to get stuck during the journey, as there are several steps that can require new tools, methods, and ways of thinking. We really want to encourage you, and let you know this is a normal part of the journey. It’s worth the effort to go local, as you’ll eat produce that tastes better; know where your food comes from; and reap the nutritious rewards of eating fresh, local food.