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Ever thought about where your food comes from? Or why most fruits and vegetables can be found year-round, even when they aren’t in season? Sure, it’s nice to be able to eat a few grapes whenever you want, but have you thought about the process of getting the grapes to where you live?
The import effect
About 30 percent of the foods we eat in Canada are imported from other countries. For example, over half of our imported food comes from the US. Top imports include nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Because the demand for year-round produce keeps increasing, fruit and vegetable imports are increasing too.
We like to be able to eat what we want, when we want it (that’s what we’re used to, right?), but importing can have negative effects. It increases carbon dioxide emissions, can hurt local economies, and the added pollution, preservatives, and packaging can harm the environment and our health.
Become a local foodie
So how can you prevent these negative effects? “If for you, buying local means shopping at small markets, CSAs, independent grocers, or directly from the farmer, then you are more able to learn the background on your food. The shorter the supply chain, the easier it is for you to understand the food’s ‘history,’ and that’s where locally-procured food has an advantage over imported,” says Kelly Hodgins, Program Coordinator of Feeding 9 Billion, a food security initiative based out of the University of Guelph in Ontario.
College and university students agree. Nearly 50 percent of students we surveyed said they would rather eat “fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers, even if it means I can only get them seasonally,” according to a recent Student Health 101 survey.
Being a local foodie is something most of us can do, and it doesn’t involve as much effort as you think. Improving your knowledge about where food comes from can help you make choices that are healthier for you, your environment, and everyone.
Where does your food come from?
How to go local without breaking your budget
Sure, eating locally grown food ups your nutrients, satisfies your taste buds, and supports your community. But how do you do it on a student budget or make a difference at your dining hall? Here are some student-friendly strategies for making it work.
In charge of your own food prep?
- Check out your community’s farmers markets. They often sell food at cheaper prices than grocery stores do.
- Join a CSA. Ask your roommates to split the cost of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm share. Buying a share means a box of fresh, local produce will be made available for pickup weekly. It’s usually cheaper than buying fruits and veg from the store. To cut the cost more, ask about volunteering on the farm in exchange for produce.Some schools, like Mount Royal University in Alberta, offer individual student shares for less money than a local farm. Mount Royal’s Good Food Box program provides monthly boxes starting at $25.
Depend on the dining hall?
- Talk to your school administration or food service provider about the importance of eating local food and showcasing where your food comes from. Ask them to indicate when ingredients are sourced from local farms and build relationships with community food growers.
- Join (or start) a club that focuses on the environment or sustainability. You may be able to use school land to start a student garden, grow herbs in residence, host a farmers market on campus, or even plant an apple orchard for future generations to enjoy fruit grown on campus.
Here’s why you should try growing your own food
Growing your own food can be an awesome hands-on science project and a way to better know ourselves and the natural world. “The more you eat food you’ve grown yourself, the more you save money and increase enjoyment and benefits of a meal. If you are one of the 40 percent of university students in Canada who identify as food insecure from time to time, growing more of your own [food] can make a big difference in your eating well and doing well at school,” says Dr. Roberts.
Budgeting tip: Life can be expensive, especially when you move out of your parents’ house. Why not save a little money by learning how to grow your own food?
These foods (and more) can be grown inside in front of a window:
- Microgreens (vegetable seedlings)
- Mushrooms (careful, these can be stinky)
The students and faculty of McGill University’s School of Architecture in Quebec created the “Edible Campus,” grew over one ton of fresh food in 2010 alone, and won an award in the process.
See how they did it and get ideas for your campus:
The Edible Campus: McGill University
- Choose an easy-to-grow variety, such as cherry tomatoes. Seeds are cheap and can be found online or at home and garden stores.
- Find a large container. A plastic19 L bucket works great if you add drainage holes.
- Fill about ¾ of the bucket with soil. Poke 1 cm-deep holes with your finger and put 3–4 seeds into each hole. Thin them out as they grow.
- Water the soil often enough to keep it evenly moist, and make sure the bucket is getting at least 6 hours of sunlight and warmth per day.
Tip: It’s best to grow tomatoes in a sunny spot outside or indoors in front of a big window.
- Prop up the plants as needed. The tomatoes should be ready in two to three months. Enjoy them in salads, on homemade pizza, or as is!
5 reasons to eat locally grown foods
1. Freshness and taste
Ever taken a bite of an apple fresh off the tree or had a juicy tomato picked from the garden? Did you notice how much better it tasted compared to most of the grocery store versions?
There are a number of reasons local produce often tastes better than produce that has been imported from another country or province. For example, local produce is usually:
- Picked at the peak of ripeness. Most imported food has so far to travel that it’s picked early and ripens on the journey. Unfortunately, this sacrifices a lot of the taste.
- Not sealed with wax. According to Health Canada, many fruits and vegetables that travel to faraway markets are sealed with wax. This is to maintain moisture, prevent mold growth and bruising, and to make the food more visually appealing. But this added waxy coating can affect taste and texture, and not in a good way.
- Less likely to be doused in chemicals. Chemicals are often used to preserve freshness or ripen food that has travelled from far away.
“The taste will usually be better because local food is fresher. It hasn’t been stuck in a truck or warehouse for several days before arriving at the cafeteria kitchen. That means the full crunch will still be in the food. The water hasn’t had three days to evaporate,” says Dr. Wayne Roberts, Former Manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council, Ontario, and author of The No Nonsense Guide to World Food and Food for City Building (Between the Lines, 2008).
2. Reduce your carbon footprint
Eating and growing local foods may help lower carbon emissions by reducing the distance that food has to travel.
The environmental impact of food transportation
- In Canada, most food travels about 2,500 km from the farm to your table.
- Food usually travels by air, truck, or train. This requires the use of fossil fuels such as oil and gas, and also causes carbon dioxide emissions.
- Food that travels far usually requires more packaging so that the food stays intact on its journey. The production of this packaging negatively affects the environment.
What do students say?
Close to two-thirds of students said that if they found out the food they were eating was imported and had a large carbon footprint, they’d look for local alternatives (as long as the price was about the same), according to a recent Student Health 101 survey. Almost a quarter of the students surveyed said they would still look for a local option, even if they had to pay more.
3. Support your community
When you buy local goods, you invest in the economic and social vibrancy of your community.
Helping farmers helps you
Buying from local food markets allows farmers to sell produce directly to people, which may minimize the use of “middlemen,” such as giant food manufacturers. This helps support the farmers and their families so that they can continue providing you with high-quality, low-cost food.
Plus, when you’re face-to-face with a farmer, you’re able to ask how the food was grown, what chemicals were used in the process (if any), and even get ideas for how to prepare the food.
“Your local food purchase helped create a local job; it likely created its share of five jobs. That’s because a local carrot is going to be picked by a local farmworker, picked up by a local driver, packaged by a local processor, and transferred at a local warehouse, for example. That means more workers paying taxes, some portion of which go to support universities,” says Dr. Roberts.
4. Get a nutrient boost
How well fruits and veggies retain their nutrients depends on many factors. But, generally speaking, they tend to lose nutrients over time, which is bad news for produce that’s shipped from faraway destinations.
Since local food is picked at its peak of ripeness and eaten more quickly, it retains its nutrients better and tastes better too.
5. Eating fruits and veggies helps you look and feel better
Local foods may be fresher and less processed, and may retain more nutrients. Eating more fruits and vegetables in general is healthier for you and can help you look and feel better. For example, some studies suggest that a low-glycemic diet (eating foods containing carbohydrates that are processed slowly, such as green veggies and most fruits) may be helpful in reducing acne.
Want to up your happy? Up your fruit and vegetable intake. Students who ate fruits and vegetables felt happier until the following day, even after other influences had been ruled out, according to “Many Apples a Day Keep the Blues Away” (2013), a British study.
Kelly Hodgins, MA, Program Coordinator, Feeding 9 Billion, University of Guelph, Ontario.
Wayne Roberts, PhD, Former Manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council, Ontario; author of The No Nonsense Guide to World Food and Food for City Building (Between the Lines, 2008).
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