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Local, sustainable food: tastes great and good for you too!

Where do you buy your vegetables? And do you know where those veggies come from? Many of us do not give this a passing thought. Children in particular might think, “Vegetables come from the store, of course!”

Most of our food is actually transported in great quantities, from far away locales, and they may require chemical treatment in order to stay fresh when travelling such distances. One study found that, on average, the food in Ontario grocery stores has travelled 4500 km from the place it was grown or raised. Is this the way we really want things to be? Some say no. There is a growing movement to buy food that is grown locally and sustainably. Not only is this good for your health, but it helps support local farmers and the economy, and engages the community.

What does sustainable mean?

The term “locally grown” is intuitive, but what does sustainable mean? Sustainably grown food has been produced in ways that are healthy, do not harm the environment, provide fair wages to farmers, and support farming communities. Sustainability means buying locally as much as possible. But buying locally does not necessarily mean the food is grown sustainably. Local food can still contain pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics.  So when you buy local food, make sure the farmers are using sustainable methods.

Health reasons to eat local, sustainable food

People are starting to become more interested in the health effects of imported food. There is rising anxiety about pathogens, contaminants, pesticides, and genetic modification in imported vegetables. There are also concerns about the use of antibiotics in livestock, which can lead to antibiotic resistance in humans. Buying locally can help give people a better understanding of how their food is grown and treated. If the food is grown sustainably, people can feel reassured that the food they eat has not been subject to pesticides and genetic modification.

Also, long-distance transport of food by air or truck adds to greenhouse emissions. And when pesticides, fertilizers, and other agricultural chemicals are used on food, they eventually seep into the groundwater and soil. All of these can contribute to global climate change, which has an impact on the health of people around the world.

Young Urban Farmers: bringing locally grown, sustainable food to Torontonians

It was out of an interest in maintaining health and the environment that Chris Wong founded Young Urban Farmers two years ago. The company plants sustainable “raised bed” urban gardens in backyards, which allow people to “reconnect to where food comes from,” says Wong. The raised bed gardens consist of a wood frame box containing soil with mixed seeds and holes in the bottom for drainage. The seeds are certified organic and not genetically modified; the vegetables are grown without pesticides; and the soil is obtained from local suppliers. Raised bed gardens can be used to grow tomatoes, lettuce, beans, peppers, arugula, spinach, carrots, ethnic greens such as bok choy, and herbs such as mint or oregano.

Community shared agriculture

After a year establishing raised bed vegetable gardens for homeowners, the company branched out into community shared agriculture. “We started building grassroots community foodsheds as part of the movement to teach why sustainable farming is important, talk about environmental effects, and provide education,” says Wong.

For the community shared agriculture project, Young Urban Farmers sets up vegetable gardens in backyards of at least 500 square feet, using the same sustainable philosophy in terms of raising the plants, and the seeds and soil used. Homeowners donate their backyards to Young Urban Farmers, who in turn convert most of the yard into a vegetable garden. The company then sells shares of the gardens to local residents. “It’s a great way to eat fresh, local produce, know who’s growing your food, and eat with the seasons,” says Wong. The program runs 18 weeks in the summer through to October, in three large Toronto neighbourhoods.

Young Urban Farmers is the first and only community shared agriculture project in Toronto, but undoubtedly similar projects will spring up as time goes on. “Toronto is taking a leading stand in urban agriculture,” says Wong. “Toronto is at the forefront, the leading edge across Canada. It is exciting to get involved and eat healthier food at the same time.”

Organizations in southern Ontario dedicated to local, sustainable food

A number of other southern Ontario organizations are helping to bring local sustainable food to residents. These include:

  • Afri-Can Food Basket, which provides education to at-risk youth where they can learn about growing food by getting involved with urban agriculture.
  • Better Daycare Food Network, which lobbied for better food in Toronto daycares and succeeded in getting a motion passed in Toronto guaranteeing that 10% of food served in municipal daycares would be local.
  • EcoSource, which connects Mississauga high schools with local farmers, so that more local food can be included on cafeteria menus.
  • Evergreen, which promotes community gardening and school gardens.
  • FoodShare, which promotes farmers’ markets in Toronto and provides information about fresh food. FoodShare also offers the Good Food Box program, which helps make high quality, fresh food more affordable for low-income households.
  • Green Thumbs/Growing Kids, which operates vegetable gardens in several low-income Toronto neighbourhoods.
  • Homegrown Ontario, an alliance of various Ontario meat associations, which promotes locally raised meat.
  • Local Food Plus, a charity that certifies local and sustainable farmers and links them with commercial buyers including restaurants, retail outlets, and institutions.
  • Ontario Federation of Agriculture, which is working to revise labelling laws so that people buying Canadian products will have information about where the food they are buying came from.
  • The Stop Community Food Centre, which organizes community gardens and community kitchens, mostly in low-income neighbourhoods.
  • Toronto Environmental Alliance, which encourages local food producers to grow sustainable, non-traditional crops for Toronto’s multicultural community.

More and more people are starting to realize that when they eat local, sustainable food – from their own gardens or through community gardening, or more traditionally from farmers’ markets or farmer’s stalls on the countryside – the food tastes better. It is also more fun and interesting to get to know the farmers than to shop in a grocery store. It enables us to learn who is making the food, monitor the quality of the food, and perhaps even influence what the farmers are growing. Knowing where our food comes from gives us a greater awareness of what we are eating.

For information about healthy food choices, see our “Nutrition” section in Health A-Z. For information about the effects of climate change on health, see “Children’s health more vulnerable to global climate change.”

Sherene Chen-See


Food Connects Us All: Sustainable Local Food in Southern Ontario. Toronto, Metcalf Foundation: 2008.