Eating nutritious food can be a challenge at the best of times.
Now, between lineups outside stores, items missing from our pickup orders and advice that we only shop for groceries every other week to improve social distancing, it’s tempting to chuck it all and live on canned ravioli and instant noodles. Especially if you’re an essential worker and/or struggling with home-schooling responsibilities on top of it all.
Still, it’s impossible not to rethink our relationship with food right now, given that “convenience food” is a concept that belongs to the before times. So, for those of us who have the luxury of a little extra time and the physical space to cook, maybe now we should consider changing our long-term relationship to food — both in terms of what we do with it and how we get it.
“When we started hearing about panic shopping, I immediately started wondering whether people were buying bags of dried beans and lentils, or if they were buying packaged things that could be reheated,” says Joshna Maharaj, chef, activist and author of the forthcoming book “Take Back the Tray: Revolutionizing Food in Hospitals, Schools and Other Institutions.”
“I think the flurry of Instagram cooking posts that we’ve seen since the beginning of this says that it’s probably both.”
Maharaj has been trying to get more fresh, local and nutritious food on people’s plates for most of her career. An important piece of her puzzle has been trying to get people to connect with Ontario’s Greenbelt, where a significant portion of the province’s food comes from. Those who have established relationships, she says, are weathering the storm better.
“The big national grocery stores are the ones with the barren shelves, but Fiesta Farms did not have that same problem,” she points out, referring to the independent grocery store on Christie Street just north of Bloor. “The smaller, family-run businesses did not have as disastrous shortages or lineups that we saw everywhere, which shows how our grassroots, farm-related local infrastructure was able to come up with a solution to meet our needs.”
Maharaj thinks Fiesta Farms is a great model for us to look to in the future since it’s always had close ties to both the community it serves and Ontario producers. Not all neighbourhoods have a grocery store quite as central to its neighbourhood as Fiesta, but most areas in Toronto are served by independent alternatives.
Lineups are also reportedly limited most times of the week at both Chinatown shops and the St. Lawrence Market, so thinking outside the big box stores is a good first step in the journey to accessing more fresh food.
Smaller boxes, on the other hand, such as ones full of organic local produce delivered to your door, are a great idea. Healthy eating isn’t complicated, in fact. We need to cut out ultra-processed foods, reduce sugar and refined carbs, up our fibre and eat more leafy greens. Luckily for us, the Greenbelt grows over a third of Ontario’s spinach, Chinese cabbage and nearly half of our cauliflower, making it easy to eat better.
Sure, delivery services such as Fresh City Farms and Plan B Organic Farms are currently wait-listing new customers (pandemic-related increased demand) but, if you think about it, you’re going to want to eat better in a post-COVID world, so may as well get on the list.
Plus the wait list might move quickly, given that the vast majority of Ontario producers are trying to step up their direct-to-consumer model. As well, new virtual farmers’ markets like Kendal Hills Farm and 100KM Farms are starting to pop up, along with delivery services connecting consumers with farmers, such as Real Food for Real Kids.
“You know, this is a rapidly evolving situation, so it’s a bit hard to keep tabs on what everyone’s doing, but certainly people are moving toward creative offerings and being able to connect with consumers,” says Ed McDonnell, chief executive officer of the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation and Greenbelt Fund. “For years we’ve seen that farmers and food producers in Ontario have this incredible creativity and they’re deploying that in this challenging circumstance.”
Even though the Greenbelt enjoys pretty solid support from the public as a rule, the role it plays in feeding cities has become even more clear in this public health crisis: “It’s certainly shining a light on the whole issue of food security and emphasizes the importance of where food is coming from,” he says.
I asked McDonnell if there’s anything we can do as consumers, aside from dropping the big box stores, getting on wait lists and seeking out virtual farmers’ markets. His answer is pretty close to the one Maharaj gave me: buy local.
“Whether it’s purchasing local flowers, or the grape growers and local wine options, it’s important to support local to the extent where people are economically able,” he says. “They are very challenged right now, so think about who your local producers are and try to find ways to support them if you can.”
After that, all we have to do is learn to cook. Maharaj talks about a revolution to reform the way we grow, shop and eat, and hopes that one positive to come out of this crisis will be more nutritious food.
Eaters of the world unite and shop local — you have only your canned ravioli to lose. SOURCE