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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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Deconstructing Dinner

Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY

Nelson, B.C. Canada

 

June 29, 2006

 

Title: Grocery Store Alternatives

 

Producer/Host: Jon Steinman

Transcript: Karen Yepson

 

JON STEINMAN: Hello and welcome to Deconstructing Dinner, produced and recorded at Kootenay Co-op Radio in Nelson, British Columbia. My name's Jon Steinman.

 

Deconstructing Dinner is a syndicated weekly one-hour program available on both radio and as a downloadable podcast.

 

Each week on this program, we explore food in ways that are often not approached by the mainstream media. And to do so, we take apart our food, and explore how the food choices we make and don't make impact ourselves, our communities and the planet.

 

An interesting topic lined up for today, because on today's show, instead of deconstructing dinner, we will be deconstructing alternatives in getting your dinner from the farm to your kitchen. And today's broadcast is entitled "Grocery Store Alternatives."

 

While the increasing size of grocery stores and the expanding selection offered has perhaps made shopping appear to be more convenient and affordable, there are a number of hidden costs associated with many grocery store trips, such as the fuel used to travel to and from the store. Many of the options offered in the modern grocery store are produced with enormous environmental costs, health costs and even social and cultural costs.

 

And if all of these hidden costs are appearing somewhat confusing, all of this will be better explained on today's broadcast as we first explore two British Columbia businesses that are eliminating the need for those sometimes grueling trips to the grocery store, and are doing so by bringing food right to your door. This service is more commonly known as Organic Food Delivery - a service that is steadily growing across Canada and receiving much attention.

 

What makes these two businesses so unique is that they both foster more sustainable food systems. Now, sustainability refers to that level at which current practices can be sustained well into the future without compromising human and environmental health along the way.

 

And to find out more about these businesses, I spoke with David Van Seters, the founder and CEO of Small Potatoes Urban Delivery (more commonly referred to as SPUD) and they serve Greater Vancouver, Victoria and Vancouver Island. And I spoke with Velvet Kavanagh, who in 1998 founded Endless Harvest, an Organic Food Delivery Service serving the Central Kootenay region of British Columbia.

 

But even other alternatives to grocery store shopping do exist. The farmer's market is one of the more popular options and will be featured on an upcoming broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner. But yet another alternative that still remains rather unknown is what is called Community Supported Agriculture or CSA - a program that sees customers becoming much more connected to their food and the process of growing that food. With the increasing popularity of the CSA movement, this is certainly a grocery store alternative to pay attention to. To find out more about the CSA movement, I spoke with Mark Bomford, the Program Director of the UBC Farm located at the Point Grey campus of the University of British Columbia. The farm has recently launched a CSA box program, and as a centre that promotes education and research, Mark will provide some critical analysis of the far-reaching benefits of such a system of sourcing food.

 

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While delivering groceries right to your door may at first appear to be a modern and innovative way of getting food onto your plate, it's important to not forget that delivering food is a practice that existed long before the introduction of the mega-sized grocery stores we see today. The demise of the milkman was, relatively speaking, not long ago. And in many countries, food delivery is a common practice, where in countries like France, a butcher may show up right to your door if you happen to live out in the countryside.

 

But while many modern-day food delivery services have failed quite miserably in the past 10 years or so, the services that have seemed to thrive much more than others are those that look at their business as far more than just a money-making opportunity, and as the largest organic food delivery service in Canada, Small Potatoes Urban Delivery (or SPUD) looks to foster sustainable food systems in the areas they operate.

 

I spoke with SPUD's founder and CEO David Van Seters, and he explains what it was about sustainability that led him to launch a food delivery business.

 

DAVID VAN SETERS: I got the idea for SPUD by doing a study on the economics of sustainable community food systems, and through that work, I became much more aware of just how little money ends up in the farmers' hands in the current food system, and that alternative food distribution enterprises offer a much better chance for the farmer or the ultimate food producer or processor to get a much higher share of the resulting food dollar than they do with the current system. And so that's really what got me interested in starting an organic grocery home delivery business, because I could see that it could create the potential for the consumer to not to have to pay any more for their food but, because we would buy much more locally, that the farmer would have fewer distribution channels for their product to go through and therefore they would be able to get a much higher percentage of the retail food dollar, and the consumers would benefit by becoming much more aware, of where their food comes from.

 

JON STEINMAN: As David explains, SPUD allows customers to become more aware of where their food is coming from. While receiving food from the back of a truck may not seem to better connect the farmer to the consumer, David explains how SPUD's business model allows this connection to be made, and he describe the methods used to educate his customers.

 

DAVID VAN SETERS: In the typical food system (our existing food system), the grower sells their product to a distributor who sells it to a broker who sells it to another distributor who sells it to a retailer. Each time they mark up the price of the product, so if you've got a farmer who's growing tomatoes, hopefully organic tomatoes, they may get less than twenty cents on the dollar. So if the tomato sells for a dollar in the store, they will get less than twenty cents for it. But in our model, we are buying directly from the farm and then we're shipping directly to the consumer and so all those middle agents are cut out and there's no need for them to pay a markup on that and so the farmer ends up getting two to three times' a higher price for the product and therefore it makes them much more viable as a farm. We're finding that across North America, and Western Canada is no different, that small family farms are finding it very, very difficult to survive when they get such a small share of the food dollar. Another thing that happens in the current food system is that because the food goes through all these channels, by the time that it gets to the end retailer, there is very little awareness of who actually grew that crop and what their special characteristics were, whereas with a local home delivery model, we're buying directly from the farm so we know who those farmers are and we can actually provide that information to our consumers so that they're much more aware of where the food comes from.

 

JON STEINMAN: It is very often discussed on Deconstructing Dinner how financially difficult it is for many farmers to recover their costs. As distribution channels have become more and more complex, the money ending up in the farmers' pockets has become less and less. As the SPUD service buys direct from the farmer or producer, I asked David if farmers are lining up at his door hoping he will sell their product.

 

DAVID VAN SETERS: Yes, in fact, all the time. Every week, we are approached by growers and food processors to see if we can carry their product because, for example, small processors have a very hard time getting into retail stores because some retail stores even charge slotting fees - that's a price that a new retailer has to pay just to have the right to put their products on the shelf to sell to see if it would sell. We don't charge any slotting fees to our small suppliers - we don't charge them to any suppliers - so that's another advantage to them that they're not having to pay a fee to just get to present it to their customers. In fact, if they're a local supplier with a good quality product, we'll even write an article for the newsletter that we put out each week that goes with each order called The Garlic Press and we'll write a story about that new supplier that lets our customers know who they are and why they started farming and what special farming techniques or food production techniques they're using, to create a connection with them.

 

JON STEINMAN: Within the daily operations of SPUD, a number of practices are designed to help foster a more sustainable business and a more sustainable food system. One of the key practices of any food delivery service is the transportation of the food itself. As has already been explained, SPUD has eliminated many of the distribution channels that make up the standard food system. This in turn reduces the amount of transportation to get that food from place to place. But the SPUD delivery trucks themselves are also helping cut down on the amount of transportation required to get that food into your kitchen.

 

DAVID VAN SETERS: Imagine one of our trucks leaving the warehouse with a hundred orders on it and delivering those orders in a fairly compact neighbourhood on a set route once a week. Compare that to a hundred cars going to their grocery store and back in their own private cars. Over 95% of grocery store trips are made in a private car. It's literally like taking an entire grocery store parking lot, which has about a hundred cars in it and having that parking lot be empty and one little SPUD truck driving by with a hundred orders on it. You can imagine how much less fossil fuels are being consumed and how much less carbon dioxide emissions and other kinds of emissions are being emitted because of those saved trips, not to mention the reduction in traffic congestion. So it's a huge environmental benefit to get your groceries delivered and a savings because you're not having to pay for that fuel when you go to the grocery store and back.

 

JON STEINMAN: SPUD has even expanded their business to introduce delivery bicycles on a select number of routes, and as David explains, he even pays for the bicycle's fuel.

 

DAVID VAN SETERS: On some of our routes, we deliver by bicycle where there's enough density and the terrain is flat enough that we can do the deliveries by bicycle and it works. People really love to see our customized bicycle and the cart that goes behind it which can carry up to 20 orders, weighing up to 400 pounds on the back of the bicycle. We actually pay for the lunch of our bicycle drivers because that's their fuel so we figure we have to put fuel in our regular vehicles so that's their fuel. We give them as much food as they can eat while they're doing their deliveries.

 

JON STEINMAN: You're tuned in to Deconstructing Dinner and today's broadcast entitled Grocery Store Alternatives. We are currently hearing clips from my conversation with David Van Seters - the founder and CEO of Small Potatoes Urban Delivery (better known as SPUD) - a business that looks to foster a sustainable food system.

 

One of the most important parts of such a system is the ability to produce food locally. While the food found in the standard grocery store is typically being sourced from thousands of kilometres away, the ability to sustain local and regional farming becomes much more difficult, and hence leads to what can be called an unsustainable food system. And David explains how his customers are made aware of how far their food travels.

 

DAVID VAN SETERS: We actually publish the distance that each customer's grocery order travels and we put that on their invoice. So if they look in the bottom left hand corner of their invoice for each delivery, it will tell them the average distance that the products on that particular grocery order travelled from where it was grown or processed to get to our warehouse. The average grocery store product in Canada travels 2,500 kilometres whereas our customer averages are about 800 and so we certainly do that by education. We've just launched a new program called "The Local Hero Award" whereby every customer whose order is under 800 kilometres' distance is entered in a draw for a free prepared meal each week, so there's a reward for buying locally from us. We're the only company that I'm aware of that actually has taken the trouble to calculate the distance that each one of our products travels from where it's made or grown to get to our warehouse and to publish that on the product information page on our website.

 

JON STEINMAN: As the move to purchase food grown and produced as close to home as possible has begun to catch on, organic food production is also very much a growing segment of the industry. But as has been the case, many of the organic foods available are originating thousands of kilometres away. I, for one, even recall recent visits to grocery stores where I found red peppers from Israel and pears from Argentina. And so I asked David how SPUD prioritizes the food they offer. Do they choose local over organic, or vice-versa?

 

DAVID VAN SETERS: We think that buying locally and buying organic are equally important and we try not to make a choice of one over the other. And so if there is a choice to be made, we often will offer the local non-organic product and an organic product that's from far away so that the customer can choose on that. We really feel it is almost an equal tradeoff. If you've got an organic product, you've protected the soil and the water because of the production methods. But if you then have to ship it to British Columbia from Florida, you've taken all of those environmental savings and lost them by putting all these fossil fuels in the air to transport the product clear across the continent. At that point, if we could only get a product that's organic from a faraway place, we would offer a non-organic local alternative and let the customer make the choice of which one they would want to buy.

 

JON STEINMAN: This dilemma that SPUD faces of choosing between an organic option and a non-organic local option is also one faced by those of us shopping at grocery stores, and yet another dilemma when purchasing organic food is not knowing the companies who are growing and producing it. Many organic labels are controlled by very large companies that in many cases have disenfranchised themselves from the founding principles of the organic movement. And David explains how SPUD has responded to this changing face of organic.

 

DAVID VAN SETERS: We certainly have always wanted to promote small independent food producers who produce closer to the land and have less of a tendency to be using the agribusiness practices that large food producers are using even when they're producing organic food products. Certainly, even when we buy products that are imported, we try to find smaller, independent food producers because we find that generally speaking, the quality is higher and we also can again create that connection between where the food is grown and educate the consumer about it. Some of these large companies, when we're trying to find out, for example, the distance that their food has travelled, they can't even tell us because they contract out the processing of say, a pasta sauce, to various different producers across all of North America and so they can't even definitively tell us how far that particular pasta sauce has travelled to reach us. Whereas, when we are buying from a smaller, independent supplier, we know that it's all coming from one location and we know who the people are and we can actually talk about the people and how they got started in that business. We think that's very important to educate our customers about where their food really comes from.

 

JON STEINMAN: These socially responsible practices of the SPUD operation can be simply observed on a daily basis, but there was one recent illustration of their values put into action that is certainly worth mentioning, and David Van Seters explains.

 

DAVID VAN SETERS: We established a small retail market in the Tsawwassen ferry terminal about a year ago. After we had signed our contract, we learned that there was this contract that Coca-Cola had with BC Ferries whereby Coca-Cola had the exclusive rights for all cold beverages sold on BC Ferries properties. So what it meant was that if we were wanting to sell cold beverages which actually were a big part of our offering at that market, they would have to be made by Coca-Cola. We just couldn't agree with that because it would force us to contravene our health guidelines that we had set up. And our customers frankly would have said, "Hey, you're an organic and natural food store and you're selling Coca Cola products? This just doesn't connect." We tried to find a way around it to see if there was an exemption but we couldn't work it out so finally the landlord let us out of the lease because we just could not sell those products and we could not be economically viable in that market without the ability to sell that category of products.

 

JON STEINMAN: And if you're just tuning in, this is Deconstructing Dinner - a weekly one-hour program produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio in Nelson, British Columbia. Each week on Deconstructing Dinner, we discuss how our food choices impact ourselves, our communities and our planet. You can find out more about the program or subscribe to the Deconstructing Dinner podcast by visiting our website at www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.

 

On today's program, we explore grocery store alternatives where we will shortly hear about one organic food delivery service that is providing more sustainable food options to customers in the Kootenay region of British Columbia, and we will also hear from Mark Bomford, the Program Coordinator of the UBC farm located at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

 

But currently, we are hearing clips from my conversation with David Van Seters - the founder and CEO of SPUD - an organic food delivery service serving the areas of Vancouver, Victoria and Vancouver Island.

 

And as we have now learned how SPUD goes about providing more ethical, sustainable and healthy food options to their customers, David explains the process a customer would go through to sign up for the service and begin ordering groceries.

 

DAVID VAN SETERS: To sign up with our service, you simply go to our website at www.spud.ca and you can simply start ordering. Most people will start by creating what we call a fresh harvest box of produce where they completely customize it to their family's needs. They say how much they want to spend on produce each week or every two weeks, whatever they want, and then they set preferences for each type of produce that we can sell. So they'll say, "I don't like eggplant, never give me that. But I love apples so always give me that when they're available." Based on the dollar amount they'd selected and the range of produce items that they want, we will create a box of produce each week that's tailored to their family's preferences, and then on top of that, they will add other grocery items. Most typically, they'll create a standing order so they'll say, "I'd like two litres of milk each week, I'd like a loaf of bread each week but I'd like to have a different loaf of bread each week over a four week cycle" so that they don't get bored of the same type of bread. And then they will often each week top up with items that they buy infrequently such as dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent or those kinds of things. Generally speaking, whereas the average Canadian household spends 90 minutes buying their groceries each week, our customers spend less than 9 minutes because most of their order is already set up for them and tailored to their families' needs.

 

JON STEINMAN: In wrapping up my conversation with David Van Seters, he ended with these comments regarding the current state of our food system here in British Columbia and Canada.

 

DAVID VAN SETERS: There are two trends that are happening across North America. On the one hand, there's a negative trend towards consolidation of our food system and everything being based on producing food at the lowest price even if that means sacrificing nutrition, and that trend seems to be growing. North Americans spend about half of what Europeans spend for food out of their total disposable incomes. On the other hand, a new trend is emerging, which our business is a part of, where people are saying, "No, I'm willing to pay a bit extra to get healthy food and to know were my food comes from and to make a connection between the people who produce my food and the people who consume that food." There's a new consumer emerging who really is hungering for that connection and we're finding that trend is also growing and hopefully more and more people will start feeling that way and we will really be able to fundamentally change the DNA of the current food system as more people want to participate in that food system that creates more of a connection between their identity and the food that that they consume.

 

JON STEINMAN: And that was David Van Seters - the founder and CEO of Small Potatoes Urban Delivery (otherwise known as SPUD) - and you can learn more about the company by visiting their website at www.spud.ca.

 

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While Small Potatoes Urban Delivery may be positioned as the largest organic delivery service in the country, there are a number of other businesses within British Columbia that offer the same service, and a more comprehensive list of these businesses will be available on the Deconstructing Dinner website (again, that site is www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner).

 

But one of these businesses located within the interior of the province is Endless Harvest Organic Food Delivery, which, located just outside of Nelson in the community of Ymir, now serves the cities of Nelson, Castlegar, Trail, Rossland, Salmo, and as of just recently, areas within the Slocan Valley.

 

Launched in 1998, Endless Harvest has proven to be yet another example of how organic food delivery is a viable alternative to grocery store shopping. Now instead of using traditional job titles for those employed at the company, you can find among them positions such as the Duke of Deliveries, the Produce Pixie and the Prince of Potatoes. Founder and owner is Velvet Kavanagh, who is otherwise known as the Organic Goddess.

 

I sat down with Velvet in the studio here at Kootenay Co-op Radio to discuss her business, and she explains how Endless Harvest got its start.

 

VELVET KAVANAGH: I was living in Vancouver for about a year and just kind of floundering around and realizing it was time for me to start my own business. I have a history in the natural foods industry and I knew that I wanted to do something that's good for people and healthy and something that I could feel really good about. It was just literally like the light bulb went on one day. There are a lot of organic home delivery food services in Vancouver and I used one down there but it didn't really click until a friend mentioned the idea to me. Immediately I thought, "Oh, that will work in Nelson." So I just started working on a business plan and six months later, I was up here and doing my first deliveries.

 

JON STEINMAN: As is similar to the service provided by SPUD, Velvet describes the process of signing up and ordering groceries from Endless Harvest.

 

VELVET KAVANAGH: It's really easy - you can just give us a call or go to our website. We have a signup section on our website or you can call our office and we'll just sign you up over the phone. Some folks will come into the market and sign up that way. You can choose either to make a custom order so you choose all the items and quantities you receive or else you can choose from one of our standard boxes, which is what most people do. There's two sizes for different households and eating levels and then there's three different types of boxes depending on whether you're an average fruit and vegetable consumer or else if you like to eat mostly fruit or mostly vegetables we have options for that as well. It's easy, that's all you do and then we show up on your appointed delivery day with your order.

 

JON STEINMAN: While organic food is often found to be more expensive than conventionally grown options, depending on how you look at it, organic food delivery can be no more expensive than grocery store shopping, and Velvet explains.

 

VELVET KAVANAGH: It works out to be pretty similar. It's just like with any business that you compare - you're going to find some products that are more expensive and some products that are less expensive. It completely depends what it is that you're looking for but you don't pay any more for the delivery. We have lower overhead in other ways so we do the delivery but then we don't have prime location storefronts that we have to pay a lease for. So it works out quite well and a lot of our customers find that it is less expensive and they're saving money because they're not going to impulse shop and buy things they don't need and so it works out well for their budgets.

 

JON STEINMAN: But the direct costs incurred by those purchasing food are, as was mentioned earlier, only a portion of the costs that our food choices have on that which exists around us. Velvet explains how her business helps contribute to a more sustainable food system.

 

VELVET KAVANAGH: Because it's a local business and because we deal a certified organic produce, organic food is a huge boon for sustainability because organic farmers just work better with the environment and with the earth to make sure that what they're doing is fostering sustainability rather than just depleting the land so that's probably the biggest part right there. We do buy from a number of local farmers and local suppliers which is really important to us so that's a good way to keep the money in the community and have people be more aware of what's going on in the community. With the home delivery, because we put everything into a plastic reusable tote it really cuts down on a lot of packaging. I've noticed a lot of times I'll go into the grocery store and I'll see people go up to the counter and they are putting one thing into a plastic bag and one thing in another plastic bag. It's really important for us to minimize on packaging so when you're getting everything delivered to you in one tote the packaging is really minimal. That's a good way to keep down garbage that's going into the landfill. With the home delivery as well, it's preventing people from driving separately to the store so saving on gas, saving on environmental pollutants from that.

 

JON STEINMAN: In further illustrating the ways in which Endless Harvest fosters sustainability, Velvet highlights the role her business holds within the community, and how they are also looking to reduce the impact their delivery vehicle has on the environment.

 

VELVET KAVANAGH: With our market that we have in Ymir, we have four local staff so that was a really great move for us. We've been able to create a market that helps Ymir as a community be sustainable and a littler bit more self-sufficient. Staff are able to walk to work - it's nice for them to be employed in the community. For food security too for people that live there, there wasn't really a place for them to get all of the range of grocery items that they need on a regular basis. This way, they can just get it right in their community without having to go anywhere. With our delivery truck, we're looking into biodiesel. We've done some experiments with trying biodiesel in our truck to see the sort of difference that it makes with emissions and fuel economy. That's definitely a direction that we're going to be going in - getting our truck on biodiesel.

 

JON STEINMAN: As was indicated during my conversation with SPUD's David Van Seters, sourcing organic foods can become difficult when many options originate from thousands of kilometres away. As is also a priority at Endless Harvest, sourcing local ingredients weighs in on their decisions of what to carry. I asked Velvet whether her business is ever forced to choose between organic options and non-organic local options.

 

VELVET KAVANAGH: Well, what we sell is certified organic so we won't sell a product that isn't organic. So that's not really so much of a question, although it is a difficult quandary at times. But with us, because we're selling all of our food as organic, we definitely need to have that in place and people rely on us to not give them something that isn't organic so it's not really an option there. We're quite fortunate in the Kootenays though, because a lot of the farmers here are organic so it seems like most of them are, which is great because then there is not that question of we don't have any certified organic lettuce available locally but there is non-organic lettuce - that's not really a question so much. We have some great farmers here that are really working towards extending their growing season which is quite helpful for us to avoid having to buy food from farther away. Definitely though, we look at where it comes from and we have a wholesaler on the coast who imports food from the States in California and from Mexico. As soon as there's something that's grown in B.C. that we can get, we drop what's from California and pick up that instead.

 

JON STEINMAN: While organic food is often first thought of in terms of fruits and vegetables, Endless Harvest also provides a wide selection of packaged goods, perishables and beverages. Velvet Kavanagh explains how her mission to foster sustainability factors into her decision on which of these products to support.

 

VELVET KAVANAGH: We like to look at what's being produced in our local area so we can offer it to our customers. We first started with grocery items - it was more of a focus on locally produced perishables, things that people needed to replenish on a regular basis because that goes right in line with produce. So we're fortunate again to have some really great producers of wonderful products like coffee and bakeries and tofu and there's all sorts of great products coming out of here. So it wasn't hard to make that decision to focus on locally produced items. We also look at the selection and the value of what we can offer to people and sometimes there's really great products that come from outside of the area and perhaps it's a product that we can't get in this area. For example, there's one company down in Oregon called Tofurkey and they make a tofurkey vegetarian roast to have at holiday time and they make great sausages and that sort of thing. They're really nice - they're a small family owned business that recently converted to being 100% wind-powered. So it's really nice finding those sorts of companies to buy products from especially with some of the changes that are going on with the organic industry, especially in prepared food. A lot of large multinational companies have been buying up the smaller organic companies and so when you're buying from out of the area, it really pays to pay attention to what the brand is and who owns that brand.

 

JON STEINMAN: As I wrapped up my conversation with Velvet Kavanagh, we briefly discussed the rising demand for such a service that delivers organic and locally produced food to one's doorstep. And she shared with me her suggestions for why this is.

 

VELVET KAVANAGH: It's sort of the classic scenario - as our lives get busier, we're just trying to figure out how it is that we want to spend our time and we're learning more and more that time is a very valuable part of our lives. And so with the home delivery service, it's very easy, it's really convenient, it's very accessible for people, and I think that's making a lot of the change. I know when I lived in Vancouver, you try to drive anywhere and it takes an hour to get to the grocery store and you wind up being in traffic and that sort of thing. So that's definitely a key for people that live in larger urban centres. For out here, I think it's the same idea but perhaps people would rather go spend some time outside with their families or go skiing or go for a bike ride or go out on the lake and just enjoy the natural beauty than stand inside in a grocery store on a nice sunny day. They want to be out enjoying themselves. And as well, there's so many people that are out in far flung locations up roads, up hillsides and they might not have good transportation so it makes it easier for them to have a regular supply of fresh groceries. With the gas prices increasing too, I think that as that continues to increase, as no doubt that it will, people will be paying more attention to how much they're spending on gas and what it is that they're doing when they're driving. So cutting back on whenever they can save gas can be key. As well, it's an old fashioned sort of idea harking back to the days when milk was home delivered. In some countries, that sort of thing happens but not so much in Canada anymore or in the United States.

 

JON STEINMAN: And that was Velvet Kavanagh, the founder and owner of Endless Harvest Organic Food Delivery, located just outside of Nelson, British Columbia, in the community of Ymir. You can find our more about the service by visiting their website at www.endlessharvest.com. There will also be a more comprehensive listings of other available organic food delivery services within British Columbia, and that list will be located on the Deconstructing Dinner website.

 

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And if you're just tuning in, this is Deconstructing Dinner - a weekly one-hour program produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio in Nelson, British Columbia. Each week on Deconstructing Dinner, we discuss how our food choices impact ourselves, our communities and our planet. You can find out more about the program or subscribe to the Deconstructing Dinner podcast by visiting our website at www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.

 

The topic of today's program is Grocery Store Alternatives. Featured up until now has been one alternative to grocery stores and that is food delivery services. As was the case with the two businesses featured on today's broadcast, they both look to foster a more sustainable food system than that which currently dominates the industry.

 

Awareness and Education surrounding the food we eat seems to be an ideal method by which more sustainable and ethical food systems can then be supported. Both Small Potatoes Urban Delivery and Endless Harvest look to educate their customers on an ongoing basis, and they retain the ability to do so because they know exactly where the food they sell is coming from.

 

But there is yet another alternative to grocery stores that allows for an even greater connection to the origins of our food. And this alternative is known as Community Supported Agriculture or CSA. While there are only a small number of CSA programs throughout British Columbia, the concept is nevertheless one that is slowly building in popularity, and as you will discover just shortly, it is a concept that could very much prove to be the answer both farmers and consumers are looking for - an answer to how we can reconnect our food system in such a way that fosters sustainability.

 

To learn more about this CSA movement, I spoke with Mark Bomford, the Program Coordinator at the UBC Farm located on the Point Grey campus of Vancouver's University of British Columbia. The UBC Farm is now into their second year of offering a CSA box program, that sees customers receiving a weekly box of fresh produce grown right on the farm itself. While the program is full and is unable to accept any new customers, it is nevertheless a program designed to educate both students and the public about the benefits of Community Supported Agriculture and how such a program fits into a sustainable community.

 

Before we learn more about the CSA box program at the UBC Farm, Mark first describes the farm itself, and its multi-disciplinary benefits.

 

MARK BOMFORD: Our main farm is a 24-hectare teaching and research and community farm and it's on the south campus of UBC's Point Grey Campus location in Vancouver. There's always been a farm at the UBC campus and there's been farmland there and it's been identified kind of as a priority from the beginnings of the University of Point Grey. But the thing is that as research priorities have changed, as community priorities have changed, as social priorities have changed, the farm has been moved around a lot and as the campus has grown and developed, it means that the teaching and research areas for horticulture, for animals, all of the traditional agricultural science disciplines, they have been shifted all over campus and this is kind of the fourth incarnation of the campus farm at the UBC Farm right now. The UBC Farm as we know it and we're officially calling it The Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, that's the academic unit that operates the farm, is part of the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at UBC. The UBC farm is kind of the practical education site for all the theory that gets taught in the classroom in the faculty of land and food systems and also other faculties as well. We have lots of people here from forestry, botany and also from some of the disciplines that wouldn't be traditionally associated with the sort of field research and field teaching. We've got people here from English, anthropology, the MBA program. We have artists as well as farmers, we've got business people as well as foresters that really spans the entire range so it is a very multidisciplinary thing.

 

JON STEINMAN: As will be discussed later on the broadcast, the UBC farm plays a critical role in providing a place for those living in Vancouver to learn about agriculture. As Mark explained to me, the UBC Farm is the only place left in Vancouver where people are trying to make a living growing and selling food on a farm system.

 

MARK BOMFORD: We are the only working farm, kind of, within what would be considered Vancouver. We're not technically part of the city of Vancouver. The University Endowment Lands has its own electoral areas but it's not part of the city officially. And then within the city of Vancouver, there's still some limited agriculturally zoned lands, limited agricultural land that's used mostly for equestrian purposes - lots of horse stables and that kind of thing. But as far as we know, we're the only people who are still trying to make a living off of selling food and growing food on a farm system. And the key to how we're actually making this whole thing run is we want this to be an integrated farm system so that we have the whole cycle of producing your compost, maintaining your soil fertility, maintaining your soil health in general and how that fits in with sort of the ecosystem health, the level of biodiversity in the surrounding forest area as well as in the field area and the health of your food and the health of the people who are eating it. We're really trying to get that whole cycle represented in this working farm. So when I say working farm, the first thing that springs to mind is that we're making money off of it or that we're trying to pay itself off of selling food but we're also working it as a whole ecological system as a managed Argory.

 

JON STEINMAN: To better understand what the UBC farm offers and how it is set up, Mark explains the unique setting that the farm creates.

 

MARK BOMFORD: With the UBC Farm right now, we're stewarding about 24 hectares of land on the campus - about half that is mature second grove forest and about half of it is cleared. Within that 12 hectares of cleared land, we have about 40 different cultivated fields. This year, it's a mix of the market garden fields as well as specific teaching gardens, research fields and some community projects. The market garden is really the heart and soul of the farm - that's where most of the cultivated land is and that's where the students who are actually engaging in learning and teaching to the different programs are growing the food, selling the food and making the whole working farm work. The market garden includes fields for growing about 250 different types of vegetables, herbs, berries, flowers and we also have honeybee hives, we've got free-range chickens who produce eggs and bits and pieces - it's really quite a mixed system. There's a couple sort of specific teaching gardens, things like medicinal herb teaching gardens, we've got research plots that are looking at all sorts of different things from integrated pest control strategies to new organic fertilizers to different types of mulches. And then community plots really have a bit more of the social service mandate - students can become involved, we've got downtown east side people coming out here, we've got this urban Aboriginal community kitchen garden - a bit of a mouthful but it's really a way for the community to get involved but first to make the connection between community health and providing service to the folks in town. It's really a nice mix - you've got your cultivated field areas, you've got your forests surrounding, you've got some animals, you've got some greenhouses and teaching areas. It's a very kind of agrarian and pastoral feeling area and one that feels fairly rural right in the middle of the city of Vancouver. It's a little bit of an agrarian gem that surprises most people who see it for the first time and it's kind of improbable that that kind of landscape still exists so close to such a large urban centre.

 

JON STEINMAN: And you're tuned in to Deconstructing Dinner, I'm Jon Steinman. We are currently listening to clips from my conversation with Mark Bomford of the UBC Farm at the University of British Columbia.

 

Beyond the many features of the farm that Mark just laid out is, as mentioned earlier, a recently launched Community Supported Agriculture Box program. As the topic of today's broadcast is Grocery Store Alternatives, Community Supported Agriculture or CSA, presents a very attractive way in which food can be purchased in such a way that supports a sustainable food system. While our North American culture has become very disconnected from the food we eat on a daily basis, CSA programs are an ideal way to reconnect ourselves to food. From the farmer's perspective, CSA programs also allow the farmer to receive payment for their product at the beginning of the season when they actually need that money. And Mark explains.

 

MARK BOMFORD: Community Supported Agriculture means farmers can sell their food directly to the customers in a very one-on-one relationship. And they do it in a way that minimizes the risk that's associated with a lot of farming operations, cultivates closer relationships with customers and also provide a little bit more return than you would get by selling wholesale. So the nice thing about it is that it's a form of direct marketing. If you're a small scale farm like we are and like many of the farms in B.C. that are doing a similar kind of mixed farming system thing, if you're at that scale, you really can't compete against the farms from California who have all these economies of scale as well as many other indirect subsidies that really mean that you can't sell for the same prices and expect to make any profit off of it. So what you can do is sell directly to your consumer. CSA boxes are a good way to sell directly to the consumer. Another nice thing about it is because you're providing your consumer with a box of produce every week, your consumer is probably paying for that box at the beginning of the season, you actually get the revenues when you need it which is when you're starting out, when you're planting, when you're buying seeds, when you're getting the equipment fixed up. All the costs that you have to put into growing food tend to happen at the beginning of the season and until something like CSA came along for most people, the revenues wouldn't come until the end of the season so you'd have to carry this short-term debt just in order to make your farm work and the nice thing about CSA is that it actually gets you some of that money up front when you need it and relieves some of the financial pressure.

 

JON STEINMAN: In further describing the benefits of Community Supported Agriculture, Mark explains how CSA programs better connect the customer to their food.

 

MARK BOMFORD: Another interesting thing about CSA is that many of these programs have this strategy where the farmer and the eater are also sharing a little bit of the risk of farming. So the person who gets the box of produce if you have a really good year and the quality of the vegetables is excellent and the yields are high, it means that that customer is going to be getting just top notch food in abundance all throughout the season and probably getting a very good deal for what they put in the box initially. On the other side, if it's a kind of not so good year and the yields might not be as good or the quality might not be as high, it means that the box that that person gets is going to reflect the realities of farming. It will reflect all of the realities of the fact that you can't control the weather, that there's lots of complicated ecological things that you're not going to have complete control over either and it really brings a consumer a lot closer to the food they eat because it drives home the fact that this isn't something that can be produced in a factory - it's something that is part of the living system. With all the ups and downs of a living system, all the varied dynamic way that it works, it's sharing the risk and it's also sharing the reward between the person who's eating and the person who's growing the food.

 

JON STEINMAN: Earlier on in the program, we heard from two organic food delivery companies where customers are able to choose their food from an Internet-based list. Now while both businesses encourage local options whenever they can, there are nevertheless options on their websites to purchase produce from locations such as California, Mexico and New Zealand to name a few. But as Mark Bomford has explained, Community Supported Agriculture is even more reflective of where we live, and the fruits and vegetables that the seasons provide. Mark explains what a customer of the UBC Farm CSA box program would receive on a weekly basis.

 

MARK BOMFORD: Someone who joins up for a box program will get a real mix of produce throughout the year. That's one of the nice things about having the growing season we do and having the diversity of production options available. So last week, for example, when our customers got their weekly box, it had some beautiful freshly harvested strawberries, a couple of pints, a couple of varieties. It had some very nice pre-mixed, pre-washed, ready-to-throw-on-your-plate-and-go salad greens. Those are always very popular because they're one of the easiest ways to get some very tasty fresh vegetables in the diet. It would have some baby carrots, it would have had some fairly sizeable sized beets, things like bokchoy, some Swiss chard. There would have been some potatoes, some nice early nugget potatoes just to diversify a little bit, and we actually threw in some organic mushrooms from one of the organic mushroom growers in the Fraser Valley. Early in the season, there's not quite the variety you have in July or August, but once we get to July and August and things like hot season crops - all of your peppers, all of your tomatoes, all of your summer squashes, winter squashes moving in, they come in strongly, that means you get a very mixed box. As I said, we had last year over 250 different varieties of vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruits, and CSA box customers get a little taste of all that throughout the season. So the box you get at the end of the season, you might still be getting the salad mix which is sort of standard, but all the other things will be very, very different from when you started up in early June so you get a real variety.

 

JON STEINMAN: While many Canadians cringe at the idea of only eating foods that are in season, Mark explains that the UBC Farm had sales every month of the previous year except February.

 

MARK BOMFORD: We are really trying to send the box into the winter as long as possible. Last year we had sales from the farm every month except for February, I believe, and we didn't plant more overwintering crops and storage crops so it means that through November/December we'll still be able to fill up boxes with some of the overwintering greens that are in the field, some of the salads that are in the hoop house and a big variety of things like onions and potatoes and winter squash things that keep very well.

 

JON STEINMAN: As the CSA box program at UBC remains in its infancy, the program is currently not accepting any more customers, but again, Community Supported Agriculture is a concept that is slowly beginning to be seen as a viable way in which farmers can earn a healthy living, and there will be other CSA programs listed on the Deconstructing Dinner website for you to refer to. But you can also speak to farmers in your area or outside of the city and ask them if they are planning on starting such a program.

 

But as the CSA model is one that is still emerging, Mark compares the UBC program to other CSAs already in operation.

 

MARK BOMFORD: We modeled our CSA box program on different characteristics from many different box programs. Some people offer direct delivery to the customer. We weren't able to do that due to lack of a reliable delivery vehicle but also due to the benefit of our fairly central location right on campus means that it's easy for our customers to get to. There are some other things - some CSAs will have a shared work model where the customers might actually participate and work out in the fields. Again, we kept ours simple to begin with. After working with a volunteer program for about five years and knowing the ins and outs of working with volunteers as a part of the contributing people to your farm, we know that it's not something that can be relied on and that there's a lot of consistency issues when you're working with people who are volunteers and who are new to the farm so we also didn't include that as one of the characteristics of our CSA box program. We looked at some box programs in Ontario, some box programs down in the United States especially sort of in California and Oregon and we did look at some of the box programs here in British Columbia as well. The demand for this kind of program really outstrips the supply at this moment. We barely advertise at all and we're able to fill up all the boxes that we said we'd take on this year. So there's definitely room for any small grower to be expanding into this area. In B.C., there seems to be a really increased awareness about food, where it comes from and interest in having some connection with where your food comes from and the boxed program is a way to really get this connection, a way for the consumer to actually make all these things that they're really yearning for right now in terms of high quality food, healthy food and food that they know was actually going to benefit their local ecology as well as their local economy. So I think there is considerable demand out there and right now just not enough small mixed organic growers who are doing the kind of things that people would like to see them doing in order to satisfy that demand.

 

JON STEINMAN: One of the more recent broadcasts on Deconstructing Dinner highlighted concerns regarding the Agricultural Land Reserve here in British Columbia. With the many benefits to be had from preserving farmland close to urban centres, one of these benefits is that of education - preserving spaces where those of us living within cities have the opportunity to visit farms and learn about the ways in which our food is grown, raised and produced. As the UBC Farm is the only working farm within the city of Vancouver, it begged the question: Is the UBC Farm at any risk of disappearing?

 

MARK BOMFORD: The future of the Farm is definitely a concern and you probably gathered this to my earlier description of how the farm on campus has been moved typically further and further away from the centre of campus over the years. Well, as the university does continue to grow and develop, and particularly with the development of the university town and with the new community that's brewing up at UBC here, it does beg the question of what's the future of the farm. We definitely know that there are interests in the piece of land that we're currently on. The one thing that we can agree with, whether we're farmers or whether we feel it would be a nice place for the next UBC neighbourhood, is that this land is extremely valuable and the difference is probably just in where we see the value. I would obviously love to see a farm well into the future of the university as I think it would be quite an asset to the university and the community and the province as well. Actually having this location in a world-class university is immensely useful basically for a society where the future of a secure food supply in light of global change is something which concerns us all. Having a place where you can actually teach and research and a central area with access to all the things that you have in a university - that's really vital for society for the long term.

 

Right now, we're actually working on the question as to what happens to the farm after 2012 because that is the date right now which the university has set to determine if the land that the farm is currently stewarding is academically valuable enough to retain for academic purposes because if the university has the option, for example, to look at market housing, it would offer a huge amount - it would offer a huge injection of cash basically into the university endowment which would also be attractive for other purposes. So it's an interesting tradeoff where you're sort of figuring this could offer scholarships and improve the kind of education that students are getting at UBC, but our argument is that it's also the kind of education that you get with a working farm down here. It's something that you can't necessarily pay for in the absence of having the land so with the extra scholarships or the extra lab equipment or the extra books and materials, we may have a situation where the additional benefits to students in terms of what you can buy is never going to be able to replace the benefit for students that a working farm would offer and as we've seen from around the province, once you do develop farm land, you really can't go back.

 

JON STEINMAN: And that was Mark Bomford, the Program Coordinator of the UBC Farm located at Vancouver's University of British Columbia. You can find out more about the farm by visiting their website at www.landfood.ubc.ca/ubcfarm, and again that's www.landfood.ubc.ca/ubcfarm.

 

There will additionally be a list of more resources relating to today's topic located on the Deconstructing Dinner website where this broadcast will also be archived and that website is www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.

 

ending theme

 

JON STEINMAN: That was this week's edition of Deconstructing Dinner, produced and recorded in the studios of Nelson, British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I've been your host Jon Steinman. I thank my technical assistant Dianne Matenko.

 

Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across British Columbia, and is also available in a podcast. All of those affiliated with Kootenay Co-op Radio are volunteers, and financial support for this station is received through membership, donations and sponsorship from local businesses and organizations. Should you have any comments about today's show, want to learn more about topics covered, or would like to listen to previous broadcasts, you can visit the website for Deconstructing Dinner at www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.

 

Till next weeků

 


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