Three Edmontonians changing the way we look at our plates.
Illustration by Kathy Boake
Call it locavore-motion – the eating trend that continues to shift from convenience to conscientious, where a shorter food chain is more important than price tags.
So, how can Edmontonians embrace the spirit of the 100-mile diet? By taking lessons from the slow and local food movements (that is food before 1950) and reinterpreting them to fit modern life.
Meet three Edmontonians who did just that, and then went way further. While they all have different ways of changing our attitudes about food, they share the ultimate goal of reconnecting us with its sources.
“Foodgirl” is hungry. Jennifer Cockrall-King, a.k.a. Foodgirl(.ca), wants to talk about her new book, but needs sustenance first. The freelance food writer, who divides her time between a downtown Edmonton condo and a semi-rural life in the Okanagan Valley, has been too busy working to eat. Now, over a late lunch of leftovers, Cockrall-King can finally relax and discuss her dual consuming passions – food and gardening.
Both are the focus of Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution, her 355-page debut released in February. But don’t expect a cookbook. Instead, Cockrall-King bites into the big issues: The ethical, nutritional and safety questions surrounding mass-produced foodstuffs, how food is intertwined with politics and social justice, and the fragility of our industrial food system. She also explores the hopeful seeds of change germinating globally in the urban-agriculture movement.
“It was an exercise in synthesis,” says Cockrall-King. “I don’t claim to be the expert … I’m a chronicler of what’s happening, writing about this new social force as fast as I can.”
Inspired by Edmonton’s growing number of first-time gardeners, Cockrall-King, who’s chronicled our local food scene for 15 years, spent five years travelling in five countries to prove the rise of urban agriculture was more than a local quirk. In the U.K. she met Mark Ridsdill Smith, who grows thousands of dollars’ worth of produce on his dinner table-sized balcony. In Paris, she was surprised to see city vineyards and urban beekeepers. And across Canada and the U.S., she found rooftop planters, thriving community gardens, urban chicken coops and urban orchards.
But really, her book’s origins lie in Cuba. In 2007, as Cockrall-King participated in a food tour with an agricultural bent, she experienced what she calls “a weird-doh! moment.”
“I’d write all day about food, then decompress in my garden at night, but the two activities had remained separate in my brain,” she says. Seeing Cuba broke that disconnect. Since the U.S. trade embargo restricts food imports, Cubans have a short, direct food chain. Due to necessity, they grow their own supply – right in the cities. “Food was produced in raised beds on concrete, then sold from the same site.” No middlemen, no shipping -just food going from plot to plate. “I felt like I’d stumbled on a portal to the future.”
But Cockrall-King’s a realist. She’ll never buy into a hard-line approach like the 100-mile diet, because she must have chocolate. Her B.C. garden puts food on her table along with farmers’ markets, but she also buys
groceries at a supermarket. “It’s not black or white. We can all find ways to tip the scales toward local food. My message is that growing food is not that difficult, even in the city.”
Kevin Kossowan wants to clear up two misconceptions about his popular food blog: He doesn’t live outside Edmonton on a farm and he doesn’t devote every waking hour to gardening, foraging or hunting.
Sure, at kevinkossowan.com you’ll read how to cure and smoke calf moose, from an example of game Kossowan shot himself and then butchered in his garage. And yes, it’s true that for the past two years, the only vegetables at the family dinner table were homegrown. But, he insists, “What we’re doing to create our family’s food system isn’t weird and it takes far less time than people think.”
Kossowan, 34, his wife Pam and three young children are as normal as any Edmonton family. He and Pam both work in insurance, operating from a home office in a North Glenora house they fixed up themselves. You wouldn’t glance twice at their average-sized lot except for the fact that they’ve turned the entire front lawn into a mini-orchard. Even in mid-winter, it stands out with vestiges of pumpkin vines poking through the snow.
“My generation has a huge knowledge gap about gathering, growing and preserving food,” he says. “I help fill that by sharing what I learn as I do my homework to find what works best here in Edmonton. I try to model them for others, without being preachy.” He also does it beautifully, with instructive, artful photography that honestly records his day-to-day efforts, along with videos that introduce visitors to local food providers.
In many ways, Kossowan is putting a modern twist on the food culture he experienced while living on an acreage outside Sherwood Park as a teenager, eating game meats his dad hunted and lots of vegetables from a huge garden.
After meeting, he and Pam travelled to Europe eight times and relished in the diverse cuisines. “I kept coming home thinking: ‘Where is our local food scene?’ Ten years ago, it was pathetic. Local cheeses, sausages and charcuteries weren’t even on the radar.” He realized he’d have to learn to create his own regional cuisine.
Today, the naturally cooled 1.8-by-1.5-metre root cellar he built is well-stocked with onions, carrots, leeks, potatoes, rutabagas, beets and squash. The “wine cellar” has expanded to include hanging meats like home-smoked bacon and dry-cured pork jowls alongside home-pressed apple cider and Saskatoon wine created at no cost (he picked his own fruit and collected more from Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton). This spring he’ll collect wild asparagus from the river valley, then pursue his new interest in foraging for wild mushrooms.
“You can bring the country into the city,” he says. “We’re trying to change our family food culture, in ways we hope others can adopt.” Now what’s so weird about that?
Step inside a warehouse in northeastern Edmonton and the first thing you’ll notice are 250 red and blue Coleman coolers reaching for the ceiling. Look behind them and you’ll find enough food to stock a supermarket, stacked neatly on shelves and piled carefully in an enormous freezer and a cold room the size of a small house.
Welcome to Eat Local First – a non-profit organization begun in 2010 by shop-local champion Jessie Radies.
From artisan cheeses, chocolates and ice cream to pizza, smoked salmon, sausages, desserts, coffees, meats and produce – it comes (in whole or in part) straight from local businesses and local farmers.
Many of the more than 800 products aren’t available at grocery stores and, although the building is actually a converted supermarket, you can’t shop here. Instead, area shoppers create online grocery lists. Then, customized orders are put into coolers and delivered to their doorsteps. “Edmonton celebrates its malls and retail power centres,” she says. “But where can people who want to shop local get food after the farmers’ markets close?”
Radies started appreciating the difficulty of sourcing local food when she and her husband, chef Darcy Radies, opened the Blue Pear restaurant in 2000. Running an independent restaurant also showed her how hard it is for local businesses to compete with large franchises.
“I worked for the ‘big guys’ in the food industry for years before I was married – Pepsi, Dairy Queen, Starbucks and lastly at KFC, where I helped twin its operations with Taco Bell. I loved it but, now as a non-chain restaurateur, I was shocked to pay three times as much for a head of lettuce compared to what franchises negotiate.”
So in 2004, Radies took a page from her former corporate life and decided to create her own version of the “economies of scales” that large suppliers enjoy. Leveraging the strength of numbers, she encouraged other independent restaurateurs to band together as collaborators, not competitors. The result was Original Fare, a collaborative marketing program that collectively and efficiently promoted local restaurants.
Six years later, Original Fare expanded its focus to Live Local, which emphasizes the community benefits of keeping consumer dollars close to home. It highlights independent dining, shopping and entertainment choices – and for locavores, it added the Eat Local First online option.
“People value quality, freshness and taste in their food, but they also want convenience, affordable prices and fast service. We give them all that, while returning three times the revenues to the community that big box or chain stores do.”
It takes time to change food-shopping habits but the Eat Local First concept is catching on. In its inaugural week of operation, Radies and staff sent out 33 coolers. Today, they send up to 150 weekly orders. “I’m stubborn,” says Radies. “Tell me our food system can’t be changed and I’ll try to prove how it can.”