Ontario strawberries are one example of local food that consumers crave. Photo credit littlepiggy.ca
Ontario consumers want local food, and the province is helping them get it. But many farmers aren’t happy with the way it’s being done. They feel their needs aren’t being met by the province, and that consumers see them as environmentally insensitive. In reality, farmers are the ones looking after the land. But they’ll need to find ways to coexist with a movement that is seeing them unfairly.
Education is vital. One of the best approaches is to show how all farmers feed their local communities. Almost all locally grown Ontario commodities end up as food. The province support this, mostly lately with its first Local Food Report, stemming from the Local Food Act of 2013. The report drew criticism for lacking specifics, but it did outline the many ways it’s trying to increase access to local food.
Farmers need to be seen producing more of what consumers say they want. This is the kind of production likely to receive new support from the province, as is the research that makes it meaningful and profitable for farmers.
Something happening in the research community is exciting and a great source for news coverage. It’s important that people receive research news in an understandable way; after all, they have a stake in it through funding, location, or direct involvement. A great deal of Canadian research starts at universities. Sometimes researchers turn to their own communities to draw participants for their studies, like the Guelph Family Health Study which involves Guelph families who have stepped up to take part in an extensive study of nutrition and health.
The nature of the community being studied is a key factor in the design and implementation of a good research project. At Guelph, proposals for every research study involving humans are reviewed by the university’s research ethics boards, who meet monthly to review proposals, suggesting ways to minimize risk to the humans and the communities, and the benefits of research maximized. Topics have a wide range, from childhood malnutrition and self-abuse, to international development and outreach. The board involves members from the community who bring the needs and rights of the community, and of the individual research participants, to the discussion. Some particular community sensitivities may exist which need to be taken into account to ensure that the rights of the individual and the community are respected during the research process.
The composition of the ethics boards, and the reviews they do, foster involvement of the community before and during the research project. These boards promote input from the communities contributing to the research process. Right now, the University of Guelph has openings for community board members on its research ethics boards. Without the contribution of such volunteers, research cannot proceed … underlining yet another way volunteers are essential to the lifeblood of all communities.
Prof. Jess Haines at the University of Guelph is a co-leader of the Guelph family health research study. Photo: Martin Schwalbe.
Chef Brian Schmeler is an advocate for a “craft” approach to cooking. Photo courtesy of Brian Schmeler
Guelph chef Brian Schmeler makes prepared food at Valeriote’s Market, supplies customers with raw ingredients, and is always on the lookout for what’s next. Last week in New York, he was part of a pan-Canadian team of chefs for a Flavours of Canada food promotion, at the James Beard School. He prepared hors d’oeuvres with ingredients developed by the University of Guelph and Ontario Agricultural College researchers. Those ingredients included barley…in the form of craft beer. Many Canadian beers stem from OAC 21 barley.
An example of a Swedish torch. Photo courtesy of Brian Schmeler
Schmeler observed a “craft” approach to cooking with the Canadian food being prepared, starting with great ingredients that can stand up to the minimal cooking simple food chefs employ. It may also involve some heritage type of cooking approach. For example, Schmeler finished his pork hors d’oeuvres with mini-Swedish torches – six-inch tall, one-inch thick sugar maple branches, with one end scored several times with a band saw. Valeriote’s Market has started selling produce for simple cooking from foragers. Foraging is a subculture unto its own and it’s only going to grow, as this kind of cuisine increases in popularity.
Simple food approaches offer up a fantastic opportunity for farmers who have the management wherewithal to dedicate and segregate part of their crops for value-added endeavours. Branding, turning commodities into ingredients, working with processors and markets, finding niches — it’s all part of a diversification plan that can help farmers more closely connect with consumers. And chefs such as Schmeler, along with Food Day Canada founder Anita Stewart who support and promote homegrown food, are a vital part of the connection.