How to dig into sustainable food

Six ways to put local fare onto your plate.

With its bounty of farmers' markets and community gardens, the summer growing season offers fresh ways to connect with what's on your plate-and at the same time, get a taste of sustainability.

Most people lack a connection with what they eat, said Nicole Easton, a volunteer educator with the University of Alberta's Prairie Urban Farm. "We go to stores and buy a lot of processed food, so we don't connect with where it comes from or how it's grown."

As an essential part of life, food is a great way to start living more sustainably, she said.

"It transcends culture, language and age and we have an opportunity as consumers and purchasers to take back our relationship with food."

One way to do that is to take advantage of locally produced fare, particularly at this time of year when gardens are active, Easton said. The average piece of food consumed in North America travels 1,500 miles to our dinner plate, which carries a heavy carbon footprint.

In contrast, tapping into what Easton calls a "local food network" eases that environmental impact, supports the local economy and is simply good for us.

"Local nutrition is something everyone should be able to access."

Here's how:

1. Learn what's in season

Be aware of what is growing locally throughout the season. "For instance, asparagus is harvested in the spring and winter squash in the fall. Once shoppers know that, they can keep an eye out for locally grown produce in their supermarkets."

2. Check out a farmer's market or community garden

A weekly summer fixture in many communities, these markets offer shoppers several local producers to choose from, often offering everything from bread and honey to meat and produce for sale. Easton suggests exploring this list from the Alberta Farmers' Market Association.

You can always purchase produce from Prairie Urban Farm, a volunteer-run plot of land on UAlberta's South Campus that supplies hundreds of pounds of food yearly to various local charities and its own workers. Across the street is the two-acre Green and Gold Garden, which sells fresh produce every Tuesday evening and Saturday.

3. Join a local ag program

Consider joining a Community Supported Agriculture program or visiting farmers directly through grassroots groups like Alberta Farm Fresh, where farm-grown food can often be collected at lower-than-market prices. People often get the chance to chat with farmers, learn about how the food is produced and get some recipe ideas. It's also a win-win situation for the producer, who gets steady customers.

4. Grow your own

If backyard gardening isn't an option, urban green thumbs can still grow their own food in community gardens. These neighbourhood plots-which number more than 90 in Edmonton and area-are either communal, where the work and harvest is shared (a good option for summer vacationers), or people can plant on their own. Windowsill and deck planters are also a good way to home garden on a small scale.

5. Grow the season

For people who do garden in their backyards, using cold frames can squeeze a bit more out of Alberta's short growing season in both the spring and fall, Easton said. These boxes provide shelter and warmth for hardy greens like spinach and kale in the spring and fall, without using electricity.

6. Store it up

Enjoy the harvest through winter months using the traditional practices of canning and drying to preserve seasonal foods. Don't know how? Prairie Urban Farm offers annual workshops, typically in September. "One other resource is ATCO's Blue Flame Kitchen, which is a huge source of expertise and information regarding food preparation, storage and preservation," Easton said.