So… MacLean’s magazine reported last week that the Hamilton Farmer’s Market had plans to oust a number of long-time vendors because they didn’t fit the market’s new image of upscale, focusing on “local” ingredients grown within a 100-mile radius. Regular readers of this site will know just how much utter bullshit I believe the 100-mile diet to be. It’s elitist in its time demands (only people with a lot of money and enough free time to source local ingredients are able to eat this way); it makes huge assumptions about food miles, something that is almost impossible to calculate accurately; and it creates what is essentially a two-tier food system, with those of us with free time and free money being able to congratulate ourselves on helping the poor, downtrodden local farmer, while those with no time and little money having to shop at the oh-so-frowned-upon supermarket.

Andrew Potter, the author of the piece, makes allegations not only of elitism but of xenophobia. This undoubtedly will get people’s hackles up. But in the case of Hamilton, the majority of the long-time vendors given the boot were not white, but Vietnamese, Colombian and Middle Eastern. And when you think of “local” food, when it is featured on menus or touted in magazines or books… it’s pretty much old skool white people food. Sorry, immigrants, you don’t fit our elitist ideal.

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Suck It Up Foodies, Wal-Mart Is In the House

Walmart announced last week that they were implementing new initiatives that would double the sale of fresh produce from local farms by 2015. For their purposes, Walmart defines “local” as being within the same state. There are also initiatives with regards to sustainability and supporting small farmers in India, China and Japan.

Full press release here.

You might think that this is a good thing. That Walmart is dedicated to being a positive influence on people’s eating habits and in supporting local farmers. Yet many people are eyeing it as a PR ploy, suggesting that Walmart has no intention of living up to its stated commitment, or that this policy may not actually be beneficial to local farmers, as Walmart has enough buying power to set the prices that they pay to producers, not the other way around.

Walmart has made huge efforts in the past few years to get on board the ethical food train. They are the largest retailer of organic produce in the US. In 2007, they pushed shrimp producers to become certified with the Marine Stewardship Council to farm shrimp sustainably. They created a sustainability index that will apply to every manufacturer of goods sold in Walmart stores, which will force manufacturers to be more eco-friendly in every step of the process, including final disposal of goods and packaging.

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Know Your Farmers, Trust Your Chefs

It’s easy to target locavores for their sometimes elitist and naive world view when it comes to what and how people should eat. (And for the record, I’m not saying they’re wrong, just that they should get their heads out of their asses when it comes to preaching at people who can’t afford to make food a priority…) But it appears that there’s a whole new way to take advantage of the gullible foodies who think they’re saving the world by “knowing where their food comes from”.

CHOW has an article this week about vendors who show up at farmers’ markets claiming to be farmers but who aren’t. Journalists from NBC Los Angeles bought produce from an LA-area farmers’ market and then made a point of visiting the farms the food came from. Except that some of those farms didn’t actually exist.

This is exactly the kind of thing that the Toronto area MyMarkets attempts to weed out, requiring that all vendors be certified and that vendors sell only the food that they themselves have grown. This unfortunately rules out co-operatives like the Kawartha Ecological Growers (KEG), but does a good job of culling the people who would head to the food terminal and load up on imports and sell them as their own. CHOW’s got a list of things to look for to ensure that you’re dealing directly with the farmer and not some scoundrel reseller.

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The All Ontario All the Time Cooking School

Never let it be said that Toronto does not have its fair share of cooking classes. Any night of the week, the culinarily curious can bake, sauté, flambé or roast at courses that range from “watch and eat” style to professional certifications. But for anyone with an interest in local, sustainable cuisine, they should stop looking at options once they hit Culinarium’s Lovin’ Livin’ Local Cooking School.

For those not in the know, Culinarium (705 Mount Pleasant Road)  is a delightful little food shop where all the products are from Ontario. They carry everything from produce and meat to artisanal cheese, Ontario-grown peanuts, jams and preserves, herbal teas and more. Owner Kathleen Mackintosh has curated a wonderfully comprehensive selection of Ontario grown and produced goods and the shop even offers CSAs and meat share programs.

The space itself is designed to look like a country kitchen with shelves full of goodies and a food prep area in the back where small groups can get hands-on experience cooking up local food under the guidance of chefs and experts. With a little bit of rearranging, the shop transforms into space for a class of 8 to 12 people, or a tasting event for up to 16. Culinarium can also accommodate a private tasting – taking over the whole shop – for up to 24 people.

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Local Yokels

Allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment.

I had a conversation with a colleague recently in which the subject turned to local food. Specifically, how people in the Toronto area are prone to blindly follow and buy anything grown locally despite the quality of the products themselves.

My colleague suggested that most consumers want their farmers’ markets to carry the same things that the grocery stores do (instead of the other way around) – i.e. expecting varieties of fruits and vegetables similar to the bland varieties grown in California that were mostly developed for easy shipping. They also suggested that certain local food producers create products of inferior quality; that many esteemed Toronto chefs who specialize in local food don’t actually offer a good quality meal; and that fans of local food willingly buy these inferior products or meals anyway, because they refuse to acknowledge their own sense of taste, instead deferring to local “experts” or advocates (chefs, food writers, etc.) who tell the food-lovers what to like and what to buy.

I don’t necessarily agree with all of this opinion, thus my “devil’s advocate” disclaimer – please don’t shoot the messenger – but on some levels, my colleague has a point. The argument cooked in my head a bit, because I’ve been wondering for a while – how many local products are we buying are because they’re the best products available, and how much of it is for the ideology of “supporting local”?

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The Savvy Shopper – Has Local Become a Dirty Word?

I was not a fan of the 100-Mile Diet or the philosophy behind it when the book was first published. I thought that the idea of such a narrow criteria in terms of what one chose to eat was a bit beside the point. The concept of food miles is a joke (can you really calculate the carbon footprint of a single mango?); sometimes food from away just tastes better than food grown nearby; and as an overall lifestyle change that people could make – for any reason – it would be both impractical and expensive.

The theory got a lot of flak as it grew in popularity, and charges of elitism were prevalent. Only someone with a lot of time and money could afford to search out locally grown grub. And in a society where the food budget is the first thing that gets cut in times of financial crisis, few people would be willing to give up their cheap imports. And let’s not forget about the fact that, here in Canada, many good and wonderful things that we’re accustomed to having in our kitchens – things like olive oil, spices, chocolate, coffee, tea and citrus – all need to come from away.

On the other hand, long before local food became trendy, I was an advocate of shopping locally. It only makes sense that we support the businesses around us. That we buy from the small place on the corner if their stuff is as good as the big guy’s, and that we encourage local artisans and help strengthen our local economies.

Turns out there is a backlash growing against local food. The main proponent being author James McWilliams in a new book titled  Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. I’ve not read the thing yet, and it’s not getting particularly good reviews, so I don’t want to comment on the content, but McWilliams seems to paint locavores as crazy (and maybe that’s true), and has a lot of criticism for organics.

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Some “Local” Food Iniative That Really Make a Difference

In all of the talk about eating locally, we often forget that North America exports a huge amount of food to other countries. Some of it with strings attached.

CARE ­ a major international development NGO ­ has announced a major policy shift in their food aid strategy. The aid organization will no longer accept American federal financing for food aid. US food aid funding comes with strings attached ­ it requires that the funds be used to purchase American commodities which are then resold in developing countries to finance poverty reduction programmes. But the practice undermines agricultural production in these regions, perpetuating the need for food aid while supporting major American agribusiness firms. CARE now faces the formidable challenge of making up lost funding.

In order to support US farms and to have an end user for an awful lot of US-grown food that would otherwise go to waste (because despite the fact that in poorer US cities, many people don’t have access to a supermarket, the US actually grows more food than they can use), food aid to foreign countries is handed out not in the form of money for those countries to buy the food they want and need, but in the form of US-grown foodstuffs. The deal was always if you want aid, you must take it in the form of US commodities in order to qualify for the additional cash.

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