Eating Sustainably in Calgary

Eating Sustainably in Calgary
Calgary is food insecure. By insecure, I mean that many people in our communities are unable to secure adequate food supplies due to financial poverty. We don’t have a food shortage problem but rather a food affordability problem. Approximately 1 in 8 Canadian households is food insecure and that number is only increasing.1 in 6 Canadian children under the age of 18 is affected by household food insecurity. Often, the most affordable foods are the most processed and packaged leading to more disease like diabetes and environmental pollution. Considering that food is necessary for human life and maintaining health, it should be considered a basic human right just like clean drinking water and shelter. If it’s a human right, what can we do to make sure everyone has access to healthy, sustainable food? One way to ensure access is by growing our own and supporting more local farmers. Growing your own food is like growing your own money! Income plays a major role in food accessibility and that is true more now than ever. A majority of us are currently experiencing economic hardship brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Growing our own food and helping others in our communities to do the same will help offset food costs.

At home, I grow a vegetable garden every summer. It’s easy to start planting seeds indoors in the spring and move them outdoors to beds or pots when it warms up. Since Calgary is colder, I tend to grow crops that I know are more resilient to cooler weather such as peas, carrots, lettuce, kale, chard, potatoes, beets, onions and squash. Throughout the year I also like to keep fresh herbs growing indoors and those include basil, rosemary, sage and parsley. I’ve also replanted the leftover hothouse lettuce roots with some success, sometimes regrowing an edible head of lettuce two or three times. I often harvest so many vegetables from my garden in late summer to early fall, I literally do not need to purchase any for a couple of months.

It’s also not very much work to grow a garden considering that you can grow hundreds of dollars worth of food in one little space. If you don’t have an outdoor space you’d be surprised how much you can grow in pots and window boxes on balconies. Don’t have any outdoor space at all? Try joining one of the more than 200 community gardens in Calgary. The city has also recently relaxed bylaws about growing gardens on city lands such as on boulevards and along green spaces beside sidewalks. Check out their helpful residential PDF guidelines.

Another way to increase food security is to consider eating a more plant based diet. Eating meat just costs more. Meat production drives the price up of all types of foods and leads to environmental damage including soil destruction and water pollution. Eating too much meat, especially processed meat, is not healthy for us and animals are often treated very poorly. Meat production requires huge quantities of feed diverting valuable land and water away from more sustainable and affordable plant crops for human consumption. We can get all the protein and fat we need from plant crops such as nuts, seeds and legumes. Did you know Canada is the world’s largest producer of pulses like dried peas and lentils in the world?

Eating within the seasons is also very helpful. When I was a child, mandarin oranges were a Christmas treat only. That’s because that was the only time when they were in season and available. Now they are grown all over the world year round. So many crops have become staples year round like strawberries, tomatoes and lettuce, but often they just aren’t as tasty as when they are in season. Forcing these crops year round means these foods are not as nutritious, they are often coated in chemical preservatives and their production and distribution causes environmental damage. Foods grown and eaten in season are also more affordable too.

As I have been adjusting my diet to be within season, I have found that I enjoy cooking and eating more. I look forward to fresh greens in the spring, cherries in the summer, squash in the fall and root vegetables in the winter. Having limitations has helped me be more creative and adventurous and maintain a varied and healthy diet. For example, I will roast a variety of root vegetables in the winter and make a spicy indian sauce to put on top. In the summer I might make a berry salad with fresh chopped mint from my garden. Often fresh fruit such as apples taste great in savory dishes as well. I have an Iranian friend that makes a wonderful savoury stew with rhubarb, often the first thing to pop up out of the grown in the spring.

Sourcing local food in season in Canada is pretty easy in the summer and early fall if you visit local farmers markets. In the winter and early spring it can be more challenging but there are many new options becoming widely available such as weekly food box subscriptions or local farm shares. Grocery stores have also begun doing a better job of sourcing and labelling local food in their stores. For example, Calgary Co-op displays a 'local' sign on all products that are local made so they are easy to find. I personally purchase food boxes from YYC Growers and Distributors. The food boxes are available for pickup at various locations around the city one a week. YYC Growers food boxes include a diverse medley of vegetables and other crops like mushrooms, honey and eggs from over 15 local farms. As a cooperative they are owned by the farmers that grow your food. Every week is different so you never get bored and can enjoy a healthy, varied diet. And of course, your purchases support your local farmers and help build food sustainability in Calgary and area. Recently, YYC Growers and myself have teamed up to offer a convenient pickup location at my shop in Victoria Park and Beltline. My shop is open every Wednesday from 1 pm to 7 pm for pickups. Be sure to place your order by the Friday before to Wednesday pickup.

Farm shares or CSAs are another great option. A limited number of members purchase a share of a farmer's crop before it is grown each season. Each week during the season, the farmer delivers a share of great tasting, healthful food to predetermined locations where members pick it up. Farm share programs provide a direct link between local farmers and consumers. It also helps spread the risk around and often the farmers also partner with other farms in order to offer more variety like fruit. I purchased a farm share a few years in row and at the end of the season members were invited to visit the farm and pick all the remaining vegetables in the field. Some local farms to check out include Noble Gardens, Fresh and Local Farm Outlet, Lil Green Urban Farm.

One more very affordable option is Fresh Routes. Fresh Routes is an arm of Leftovers Rescue Food. Leftovers works with local restaurants, bakeries, grocers, and distributors in Calgary and Edmonton to ensure edible food is kept out of the landfill by redirecting it to service agencies and into the hands of those who need it most. Edible food is redirected with an army of volunteers from vendor organizations, service agencies, and community members. They are making sure good food gets eaten and stays out of our landfills! You may purchase a food basket through Fresh Routes for just $15. Each basket includes a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread and a selection of fruits and vegetables. Before the pandemic, Fresh Routes set up convenient pop-up grocery stores around Calgary, but now you need to request a delivery to maintain social distancing.

Finally, not only is local food more nutritious and affordable, but it is more environmentally friendly. Small farmers adopt sustainable, environmentally friendly practises more readily. They encourage more crop diversity, take better care of the soil, use less pesticide and produce tastier and more nutrient rich foods. Local food production keeps more local money in the community, often costs less than conventionally produced food, and helps build a sustainable farm community over the long term. Less mono-culture food production reduces food safety risks, and reduces the need for long-distance transportation potentially adding even more food contamination risk. Local farming also reduces air pollution. There are so many good reasons to support local.

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