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Local food diet possible amid urban sprawl, but Canadians face challenges

The Canadian Press

TORONTO — Under a hot summer sun, not far from the rush of traffic along
Ontario's Highway 400, a small group of farmers kneel in the soil and pluck
bright red radishes from a lush field.

A short walk away, Jane Carnwath wheels a shopping cart around a small
farmers market where the produce is as fresh and local as it gets, travelling
mere metres from the field before it's sold.

"(There's) pride in the locale," says Carnwath, who lives in
downtown Toronto but frequents the market in the Holland Marsh area, about 60
kilometres north of the city.

"I like the food. It's better. It sometimes costs a little bit more,
but I think it's worth it."

Fuelled by concerns about the massive carbon footprint of shipping food
thousands of kilometres to Canadian supermarkets, more consumers are seeking
out nearby producers like those at the Holland Marsh market.

And often they don't even have to leave the city to find them.

Less than an hour away in downtown Toronto, hidden beneath a towering maze
of glass-covered office buildings, the crowd of people hovering around a small
weekly farmers market are bearing this out.

For Bob Proracki, a sweet potato farmer from the northern shores of Lake
Erie, the suit-wearing office workers browsing fresh produce over their lunch
breaks represent a new, green-conscious cornerstone of his business.

"People are becoming more aware of the need to buy local and to stay
away from shipments of food brought from overseas," says Proracki while
selling his fresh sweet potatoes and pre-cut fries at one of the 10 markets in
the Toronto area he attends each week.

"With more people aware of that, then we obviously benefit financially
when we take the time and effort to come to markets and people know the food
they're eating."

Picking through cartons of cherries and strawberries at a neighbouring
table, Clare Baliva of Toronto says she visits local markets because she wants
to know exactly where her food comes from.

"It's not just a preference in terms of the produce; it's a preference
in terms of saving the environment as well," says Baliva.

"I'm just starting to learn more about what is environmentally friendly
and how to reduce my carbon footprint, and I've just learned that one of the
ways is to buy local."

Part of the recent popularity of local food comes from the trendy book
"100-Mile Diet," written by a Vancouver couple who tried to live for
a year only eating food produced within a radius of about 160 kilometres.

The 100-mile figure is largely symbolic, says Toronto-area environmentalist
Franz Hartmann, but it's a reminder that vast farmland still sits just beyond
the sprawl of cities like Toronto, Vancouver or Halifax - and certainly closer
than where most of the food we eat typically originates.

Environmental groups, including the David Suzuki Foundation and New
Brunswick's Falls Brook Centre, estimate the average Canadian meal travels
about 2,400 kilometres before it reaches the kitchen table.

"Every time you buy local instead of buying imported food, there's a
lot less energy required in transporting it from faraway to here," says
Hartmann, executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance.

Hartmann acknowledges there are many foods that just aren't produced in
Canada, such as bananas and coffee, and this country's long winters make it
difficult to find local food year-round.

In other cases, geography proves a challenge - local sugar would be hard to
come by away from the sugar beet farms of the Prairies, and much of land-locked
Canada would have to rethink eating many kinds of fish.

And then there's Canada's Far North, where just about everything must be
shipped in from afar.

"We're not saying buy everything local. That's just impractical,"
says Hartmann.

"All that we're saying is, when available, if you've got a choice of an
apple grown in Toronto's greenbelt or an apple that comes from faraway, pick
the apple that's grown in the greenbelt."

"It doesn't mean never buy stuff that's imported, but just reduce your
dependence on buying imported vegetables and fruits and food."

Back at the Holland Marsh market, overhanging signs distinguish between
produce from nearby and afar.

Ginette Kanyo, who's helped run the Canal Road Farmers Market in Bradford,
Ont., with her husband for the past 17 years, says choosing local is easy if
shoppers are willing to make the effort.

"Try to find some of these markets," says Kanyo.

"We don't want to lose that generation (of farmers) coming up. We've
lost lots of people already who've moved on from the farms, so we need to keep
them going if we want to have good produce down the road."

Environmental groups across the country are encouraging people to pay
attention to where their food comes from, and if the information isn't readily
available, they should ask for it.

Many cities stage farmers markets rife with local food, and there are even
groups, such as Toronto's Local Food Plus, certifying locally grown fruits,
vegetables and meats with special labelling for consumers.

In B.C., the provincial government announced plans earlier this year to
spend $3 million on a campaign to make consumers aware of how far their food
travels to convince them to buy locally.


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