Moving ‘from field to fork’

The local food movement isn’t new, professor says, but a ‘relearning’ process

Queen’s geography professor Betsy Donald has been studying the local
Queen’s geography professor Betsy Donald has been studying the local

As visiting parents taxi students to and from grocery stores this week, Kraft Dinner and Pizza Pockets are flying off the shelves. But for some, university life doesn’t necessarily mean microwaves and meal plans. Last Saturday, vendors at the Kingston Public Market downtown watched as students stocked up on fresh, local produce.

On the third Wednesday of September, the Queen’s community will be able to take part in the local food movement right on campus, when the Queen’s farmers market opens for its third year.

The Queen’s market is relatively young but the Kingston Public Market­—220 years old and counting—is proof the appeal of local food is nothing new and far from a flash in the pan.

The market on campus isn’t affiliated with Kingston’s market, but a number of the vendors have booths at both, such as the Wolfe Island Bakery. Adriane VanSeggelen, ArtSci ’09 and a volunteer at the market, said the group is formulating set guidelines to determine vendor selection. “The whole point of the farmers market is to promote the local farming economy,” she said.

Queen’s geography associate professor Betsy Donald has been researching the rise of local, organic and specialty foods for 10 years.

“We used to eat a lot more local food and then we completely got away from it, and now we’re starting to relearn and come back to it,” she said.

Donald, who’s teaching a graduate course on the food environment, became interested in the topic 10 years ago when a group of farmers near Toronto hired her to write a report on farmland preservation. At the time, she was asked to remove a section on organic food, which she was told was “just a fad.”

Donald said she spent a lot of time during her undergraduate years at McGill University experimenting with food from Montreal’s markets. She said the local food movement forces people to think about using fruits and vegetables creatively.

She and her roommates once tested their culinary aptitude when they invited former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau over for dinner. “My roommate had known his family and she’d kept in touch with them and she said, you know, ‘Do you want to have him over for dinner?’” Donald said, adding that she contributed a salad and the best $10 bottle of wine she could find for the occasion.

“He liked it,” she said with a laugh.

“If you don’t know how to cook and you don’t know how to improvise … if we lost that as students, then that’s a real shame.”

She said returning to the root of our foods is one of the goals of the Slow Food Movement, created to counteract North American fast food culture by re-cultivating an appeciation for food.

“That’s really part of the Slow Food Movement, too. It’s trying to relearn,” she said. “Part of the movement as well is to get people learning how to cook. It’s healthier, it’s cheaper, it can be enjoyable. And it doesn’t have to be elitist. … Everyone should know how to how cook.”

Today, Donald looks at businesses that specialize in healthy, sustainable and environmentally friendly production processes.

“I’m trying to understand, from field to fork, how our … interest in food has been changing in the last decade or so, especially in Canada. We have very backwards laws and legislations that really favour big companies,” she said, adding that one’s choice of food can be seen as a political act.

“Consumer groups and social movements are moving much farther ahead than government regulatory bodies.”

For example, she said, the Canadian government is still debating whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) should be labelled in food. In Europe and California, laws are much more stringent.

“McDonald’s in Europe is not allowed to use food colouring in their strawberry sundaes, whereas here in North America they can still get away with using food colouring and chemical additives,” Donald said.

“I think this is obviously extremely pertinent given the recent food scares.”

In August, deli meats from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in North York were contaminated with bacteria that caused outbreaks of listeriosis across Canada. As of Sept. 3, public health officials confirmed 12 deaths associated with the outbreak.

“Every year since [the demand has] grown by about 20 per cent,” she said.

Kingston Public Market vendor Lisa Davis, who was arranging blueberries at her stall early Tuesday morning, said market prices might be higher, but in the long run customers end up wasting less food.

“[Customers] tell us all the time that they haven’t had a good peach all year,” she said of supermarket produce.

Davis, who runs Simple Country Pleasures in Napanee with her mother, has been a vendor for about 26 years. In general, she said, people have become more conscious about eating local food in recent years.

“It’s fresher, you know the quality you’re going to get, what the taste is going to be like,” she said. “It’s a personal touch that [customers] get here.”

Chris Ackerman, who owns Baycrest Farms, near Picton, is another market veteran. His grandparents began the business selling their own corn, apples, squash, pumpkin and cucumber, and they’ve had a booth at the market since 1974. Today, Baycrest Farms sells produce from local farms.

“I’m not that young anymore,” Ackerman said. “I can’t be here and have growing at the same time.”

Once a week, Ackerman drives to Toronto to pick up items like peaches and plums—anything that isn’t abundant in the local area. He said local food is safer than food imported from countries like China.

“China uses sprays that have been banned for 20 years around here,” he said. “It’s scary stuff.”

One vendor who takes part in both the Kingston market and the Queen’s farmers market is Gerrie Baker, who owns The Worm Factory in Westport. Baker sells composting packages containing worms to students for $65. She said the worms eat any sort of organic waste—from orange peels to socks—and can be kept either outside or indoors.

“For me it’s wrong to abdicate recycling to the curb,” she said.

A number of students have purchased worm composting units in the past, Baker said. The process, called “Vermicomposting,” is also used by the Tea Room, a café operated by the Engineering Society.

Baker, who lives on a completely sustainable organic farm and was raised to eat homegrown food, often invites students to visit for a weekend to learn more about the process, and about farming in general.

“We really want them to [compost], and they can also come up to the farm and do a work weekend,” she said. “Many wonderful students come home with good produce.”

The year’s first Queen’s farmers market will be hosted outside Stauffer Library on Wednesday, Sept. 17, rain or shine. The Kingston Public Market at Springer Market Square operates every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. This Saturday, market vendors and 12 Kingston restaurants are also hosting “Fare on the Square” from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. $2 vouchers will allow visitors to try samples of local food.

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