8 ways to help build a better food system

farmers' market
CC BY 2.0 NatalieMaynor

Residents of Ontario, Canada, have been challenged to allocate $10 of their weekly grocery budget toward local food. Ten bucks may not seem like a lot, but it can have a hugely positive effect in the long run.

“If every household in Ontario spent $10 a week on local food, we’d have an additional $2.4 billion in our local economy at the end of the year. Keeping our money circulating grows those dollars to $3.6 billion and creates 10,000 new jobs.” (The Ontario Table)

It’s easy to forget the power of individual dollars, but they do add up. The local food movement that is currently sweeping the United States and Canada is the direct result of consumer choices and will continue to grow as long as consumers commit to supporting it. Here are some ways to get involved and help grow a more sustainable food economy in your own neighbourhood.

1. Join a CSA program

CSA (community-supported agriculture) programs are exploding across North America. You pre-purchase a seasonal share of food from a local, usually organic farm and receive a box of fresh vegetables every week. This is an excellent way to provide direct support to local farmers and to enjoy the most delicious, freshest produce available at great value.

2. Shop at a farmers’ market

Farmers’ markets give you more control over what you want to eat than a CSA share does, though it can be more expensive, especially if you live a city. But again, even if you spend just $10 at a farmers’ market, it can make a difference. Make sure to peruse the whole market before making your shopping decisions. Rural settings are another matter; it’s easy to find small markets and roadside stands that sell high-quality produce at shockingly low prices (when compared to Whole Foods markups!).

3. Buy the whole animal

If you’re a meat-eater concerned with the origins of your meat, you’ll know that ethically raised, hormone-free, and free-range meat is exorbitantly expensive compared to the supermarket variety. The best thing is to invest in a chest freezer (doesn’t have to be huge, but you’ll probably need more space than a regular fridge freezer) and buy a whole or half animal. This way you can buy a well-raised animal, such a heritage Berkshire pig or grass-fed cow, have it prepared the way you want, and pay significantly less per pound. Plus, you won’t waste time and money on last-minute trips to the grocery store for meat. Alternatively, learn how use cheaper and tougher cuts of meat, which are just as good if prepared well.

4. Plan your menus

Careful advance planning can significantly reduce food waste, which is a huge problem. Maybe wait until you’ve received your CSA share and then plan the rest of the week’s meals around what’s in your fridge, or shop first at the farmers’ market for the best deals. Leave a night open for leftovers, or plan to make an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink soup that will empty out those extra containers.

5. Use the whole vegetable

Don’t throw away those beet and turnip tops, limp carrots and celery stalks, or sprouting potatoes. There are so many things you can do with them. Chop up greens in soup; they’re a wonderful addition and pretty much anything goes. Roast old root veggies, or skip that step, and turn them into delicious vegetable stock that can be popped into the freezer for whenever you need it. Compost whatever you can’t use. (See my post on 8 foods you can reuse before throwing out.)

6. Dine out at local restaurants

Did you know that most Americans buy food from restaurants 5.8 times per week, according to the U.S. Healthful Food Council? (I was shocked to learn that statistic!) By choosing to support a restaurant that sources its ingredients locally, you’ll keep your dollars within the community. Ask around to find which restaurants do this and tell local restaurateurs what you’d like; speaking out about your local food preferences can only help.

7. Go for seconds

There are two interpretations for this point: (1) Ask farmers for ‘seconds’ of vegetables, which are the less attractive, possibly bruised or deformed, and usually not-displays siblings of the beautiful-looking vegetables for sale at a farmers’ market. Farmers sell seconds at reduced prices, and yet they’re just as yummy and nutritious as the pretty ones.

(2) Cook double the amount that you need in order to have leftovers for later. Store those ‘seconds’ in the fridge or freezer so that you don’t have to cook as often.

8. Teach your kids to eat everything

All too often picky eating is created by parents. Many kids can and should be trained to eat anything they're served, unless, of course, they suffer from food allergies. For those kids without intolerances of any kinds, however, it's absolutely possible to train them to enjoy a wide variety of fresh produce and interesting tastes; just look at what babies eat in countries around the world. The reason why this matters is because children who eat everything make shopping and cooking much easier for the family, decreases a parent's dependency on those pre-packaged/processed fast foods that picky kids often prefer, and will result in adults who appreciate truly good food -- and the local food movement needs people who appreciate good food.

8 ways to help build a better food system
Shop intelligently and vote with your dollars to make a big difference.

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