06/26/2015 03:49 EDT | Updated 06/26/2016 05:59 EDT

Choosing Local Food Is Casting Vote For World We Want To Live In

One epicentre of the Vancouver Island local-food scene is a funky downtown Nanaimo restaurant called Gabriel's Gourmet Café.

Gabriel's Gourmet Cafe

A revolution is quietly sweeping the land that's bringing nutritious food and fighting climate change. We know that eating fresh local food is good for us, but most families are busy and have to squeeze in a cheap, easy and (hopefully) healthy supper at the end of the day. It's easier to just swing by the grocery store to get ingredients for quick meals.

A typical supermarket contains about 30,000 items, almost half produced by 10 multi-national food and beverage companies. The resulting carbon footprint is enormous.

The first time I visited a grocery store after returning home from Afghanistan, I was appalled by the over-packaged excess on the groaning shelves. There are farmers' markets across Canada and fresh-food delivery companies in most cities, and that's fabulous, because local food is tastier, fresher, safer and supports local farmers and entrepreneurs instead of some distant, faceless corporation.

One epicentre of the Vancouver Island local-food scene is a funky downtown Nanaimo restaurant called Gabriel's Gourmet Café. But for the tables on the sidewalk outside, there's little to differentiate it from the smoke shop and clothing store on either side.

But scores of Nanaimo locavores regularly push open the dark wood doors and get their fix because the café sources the majority of its food from local farmers. The interior is rustic West Coast hippie with raw log tables and bench seats. Saw blades and cloth collages adorn the walls, but the crowning touch is a brightly lit, fiercely green vertical herb garden at the back.

The café has the feel of a funky, fragrant bookstore. The wee tables outside are always taken, if it isn't bucketing down from the heavens. Every table has a card stand that introduces the local farms where the food on your plate comes from and the farmer who raised it.

Proprietor and chef Gabriel Martin's first place in town was about 200 sq. ft. and served only takeout. Word quickly spread that the food was good, and Martin had to open his full-service place last year.

His first farmer chose Martin as much as Martin chose him. Farmer Brown (really!) came walking down the street one day with a wheelbarrow full of vegetables in front of the old location. Martin was impressed by the farmer's produce and placed his first order on the spot.

Martin was born on Salt Spring Island, in the Salish Sea between the island and Vancouver, where he was immersed early in the local food scene. He has vivid memories from age four of his first fully local meal: roasted venison, morel mushrooms and steamed stinging nettles. That meal made an impression that has lasted his whole life and set the tone for Martin's culinary career.

While Martin flourishes with local food, the outlook is less sunny just north of Nanaimo, where the town of Lantzville is known for its farmers' market and seaside charm. Its municipal council is not charmed by local farmers.

Lantzville organic farmer Dirk Becker spent five years fighting a bylaw that prevented him from selling the produce he grew on his two-and-a-half-acre property at the farmers' market he founded in Nanaimo. It was a labour of love to transform a bare patch of land. The previous owner had scraped off and sold the soil, then the sand, then the gravel a metre down.

When Becker took over, "all that remained was gravel. [Restoring the land] has been a gradual, organic process -- from planting a few fruit trees and having a small growing area, to expanding with more handmade soil." Becker has since sold his land in Lantzville, and is starting all over again in nearby Errington, where the community is more farmer-friendly.

Lantzville's attitude toward local farming might be extreme, but there isn't wild enthusiasm for it on the part of provincial and federal governments. There's a lot more they could do to support local agriculture, such as protecting farmland, making sure farmers receive a fair price for what they produce and axing regulations that create barriers to farm-gate sales.

Filmmaker and Green Party candidate Paul Manly says Gabriel and Becker are on the right track; "I applaud the efforts of local farmers to re-build the local food supply chain and I'm happy to see the increasing support for local food from restaurants and the public," he says.

Choosing local food is casting a vote for the kind of world we want to live in; a profit-motivated world or Farmer Brown with his wheelbarrow. I know which world I prefer.


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