When I go grocery shopping, I don't pay much attention to where the food was made. I want tasty food at a good price, and I want to get it as quickly and easily as possible.
But recently, I heard about a meeting in Spryfield about options for buying locally produced food, and my curiosity was sparked. So I decided to contact Joanna Brown, the researcher for the local branch of Food for Life, an international organization that develops strategies for making sure everyone has access to healthy food, who chaired the meeting to find out what options are out there.
Brown has a degree in social geography and environmental studies from the University of Victoria. She is working with people in Spryfield to start a food-buying co-operative.
"For someone in Clayton Park, it might be more difficult because you might have to do more travelling," said Brown. "I think it is very possible to access local food if you try."
The biggest barriers, she said, are that there are not a lot of local products in supermarkets, and there is no real labelling system. The Canadian Food and Inspection Agency website says all pre-packaged food does have an address for the supplier on the label, but that does not guarantee the food was actually produced at the location, Brown said, and it doesn't apply to unpackaged foods such as vegetables.
I asked Brown for some tips to try while shopping for my next grocery order. She offered the following:
- Look at alternative buying options. Try a farmers' market, alternative retailers or home-delivery services.
- Make requests and ask questions at the grocery store.
- Read labels for the suppliers' addresses and write or call with questions.
- Be proactive. Start or join a food-buying club.
- Contact groups such as Food for Life to find out how to get involved with a buying club or where to find local products.
Dirk Romyn, spokesperson for the Atlantic Superstore, said the chain does try to buy locally produced products and meets regularly with producers to inform them of ways to do business with the store, adding that the products have to be available in enough quantity and at the right price and quality.
Romyn told me that produce items are labelled by country of origin, and staff in the department is able to help customers find local products. He warned me meat and grocery departments would not likely be able to tell product origin.
I headed to the Joseph Howe Superstore with my grocery list and Brown's tips in hand. As promised, country of origin was labelled on my veggies. I didn't find a lot of local vegetables, but the growing season is barely getting started. I did find some hothouse tomatoes from Annapolis. The man at the meat counter was able to tell me that both my steak and chicken breast were from Alberta. I found a knowledgeable woman in the organic section who showed me locally produced grain products and referred me to some bread from a local bakery.
I didn't have a lot of luck with pre-packaged products in the grocery aisles. I found some honey and organic peanut butter, though. Local dairy products and eggs were the easiest to find. It took about 20 minutes longer to pick up my food because of all the label reading, but I didn't have to spend any extra money.
I took to the Internet to find some alternative retailers who may be able to fill in the gaps of foods the supermarket didn't have.
Home Grown Organics, which offers a retail space or home delivery, is at 6186 Allan St. Owner Geordie Ouchterlony has a background in environmental engineering. The store deals mainly with Nova Scotian farmers during the summer, and all produce is certified organic. They also offer certified free-range meats from a farm in Kentville, and grains, honey, jam, maple syrup and pastas.
Planet Organic is located at 6484 Quinpool St. and also offers certified organic products and local produce during the growing season.
Ouchterlony said the best option for local food during the winter months is the farmers' market because farmers will store produce to keep going during the winter. The Halifax Farmers' Market is open Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m on Lower Water Street in the Brewery Market.
There is always the option of growing your own vegetables. If you don't have a yard of your own, look into one of the community gardens. There are several in Halifax, including the Urban Farm Museum in Spryfield and the North End Community Gardens.
While buying local foods doesn't seem to cost a lot of extra money, it does take some leg work, so I wondered if it was really worth the effort.
I spoke with Theresa Glanville, professor of applied human nutrition at Mount Saint Vincent University, to find out if there are any health benefits to eating locally produced or organic foods.
"Probably one of the greatest impacts on nutrition quality of fruit and vegetables is the time between harvest to consumption and how they have been stored between harvest and consumption," she said. "It may have higher nutritional value, but it is not safe to assume that because it was locally produced, the time is shorter between harvest and consumption."
So be sure to ask how long ago products were picked when purchasing local produce.
Brown and Ouchterlony listed two other benefits of local food that I found more compelling - supporting the local economy and promoting food security.
"If you put a dollar at the market, into someone that's going to go into the market, it's going to go back to his home, and then he's going to spend it on the things around, he's going to be able to pay his staff with it. And then his staff are going to be able to spend it in their local communities," said Brown.
Ouchterlony said because we are heavily reliant on importing our food from the United States and Mexico, there isn't much assurance that we will have a constant supply.
"Should there be a food shortage in California due to an energy crisis, water shortage potentially, you know, it doesn't bode well for people in Nova Scotia when our major food supply is cut off from the rest of North America, which is a very real possibility," he said.
Now that I'm going to have nightmares about running out of food, I think I'll take the extra effort to read labels, ask questions and support my local farmers.