Archive for January, 2013

Community Harvest grows fresh local produce for Ottawa’s hungry

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

What comes to mind when you think of food bank food? Canned goods, probably. Processed foods high in salt, sugar and fat.

The Ottawa Food Bank and Community Harvest Ontario are challenging that stereotype. Together, they’re transforming emergency food relief in this city by making fresh, local fruit and vegetables available to those in need.  In 2012 — its third year of operation –Community Harvest grew and sourced 56,130 lbs of fresh produce for the Ottawa Food Bank to distribute to its 140 member agencies.  The goal for 2013 is even higher, at 75,000 lbs.

The Community Harvest program gives the estimated 48,000 people (37% of them children) who use Ottawa Food Bank services each month the chance to eat more nutritiously.  At the same time, it helps strengthen community by building relationships with local farmers, recruiting local volunteers and soliciting in-kind support from local businesses.

“The whole program is very rewarding,” says Jason Gray, Community Harvest coordinator for the Ottawa Food Bank. “The community benefit gives you a real sense of wellbeing.”

Ontario Association of Food Banks

An initiative of the Ontario Association of Food Banks, Community Harvest Ontario got started in 2009 in response to the global recession, declines in Ontario’s food manufacturing sector, and rising demand for food bank services.  Successful pilot projects in the Toronto area led to expanded programs in partnership with regional food banks in Ottawa, Hamilton, London and Thunder Bay the following year.

The push to provide nutritious fresh food is consistent with other Ottawa Food Bank practices, Jason points out. “Many people aren’t aware, but we distribute a lot of fresh food, and for after-school programs it’s all fresh.  Through our annual Food Aid event, we raise money to purchase beef from a local sale barn that we can process locally, freeze, and supply to our member agencies.”

Grow, glean, give

To provide fresh local fruit and vegetables, Community Harvest uses three main strategies:

  1. It grows its own crops at local farms, using organic methods.
  2. It gleans unpicked produce that would otherwise be disposed of or ploughed back into the soil at the end of the season, and
  3. It promotes giving – that is, donations of produce from partner farms and farmers’ markets (in Ottawa’s case, from the Ottawa Farmers’ Market).

These strategies are clearly working. For example, last year’s growing projects at Black Farm in Stittsville and Roots and Shoots Farm near Manotick Station yielded a total of 15,017 lbs of vegetables, up 83% from 2011. Gleaning from partner farms yielded nearly 17,000 lbs, while produce donations added more than 24,000 lbs. As the program grows, so does the variety of produce; in 2012, it included potatoes, carrots, corn, squash, beets and apples, as well as small crops of broccoli, sweet potatoes, tomatillos, Swiss chard and other vegetables.

To meet its 2013 goal of 75,000 lbs of fresh produce, Community Harvest plans to consolidate its growing projects and search for a new one closer to Ottawa Food Bank’s warehouse in Gloucester. There are also opportunities to add new crops, depending on the needs of member agencies.

 Volunteers at the heart of Community Harvest

None of these successes would have been possible without the hard work of volunteers, Jason Gray notes. “They’re at the heart of what we do.” In 2012, 285 individual volunteers and 10 corporate groups spent 1,219 hours planting, weeding and harvesting.

Jason says he’s always interested in signing up new volunteers, and wants to engage more corporate groups this year. He’s also looking for donations of equipment to streamline the farm work and money to expand the program. Contact him if you’d like to help.

 What other ways can Ottawa make fresh local food available to those in need?



How to choose a CSA

Saturday, January 26th, 2013


If you want to join a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, farm this year, now is the time find out what’s available in the Ottawa region. Some CSAs have begun accepting applications for the 2013 season ( is already sold out), so don’t leave it until March or April to purchase your share.

As a CSA member, you pay a flat rate for a share of what the farm produces that year. In return, you receive a weekly basket of the farm’s freshest seasonal produce.  CSAs are becoming more popular across North America. With food safety a hot-button issue these days (think the XL Foods recalls in 2012 or the 2008 listeria scare), consumers want more information about where their food comes from and how it’s produced. Belonging to a CSA offers the kind of transparency people are looking for, as well as a chance to support family farming and the local economy.

To choose the CSA that’s the right fit, you’ll need to do a bit of homework.

Consult the Buy Local Guide

Find out what CSAs serve the Ottawa region by consulting Just Food’s Buy Local Guide. In most cases, there’s a link to the farm’s website so you can click through for more information. Call the CSAs you’re interested in, and consider arranging an in-person visit as well as speaking to current members.

Compare CSA features

Take note of:

  • pick-up/delivery arrangements. CSAs are usually located outside the city, but most will have drop-off spots in town, and a small number do home delivery.  Others ask members to collect their baskets from the farm gate.
  • types of products. Vegetable CSAs dominate, but some supply additional products — preserves, flowers, honey, eggs, pastured meat and poultry — that can be added to the weekly basket or purchased at the farm. Several CSAs provide meat and poultry only, such as Grazing Days (beef), Natural Lamb (lamb, turkey, chicken) and Upper Canada Heritage Meat (pork).
  • season length. The typical season runs 16 to 18 weeks, from June to October. However, several farms extend the season by growing in greenhouses or hoop houses; others offer one or more winter storage baskets (e.g., Ferme Lève-tôt, Rainbow Heritage Garden) stocked with root vegetables and greens.  Bryson Farms, a large non-standard CSA, grows and delivers food year-round.
  • price. Traditional CSAs charge a flat rate per share for the season that varies according to share size (different shares are available based on household size), product types and season length.  Non-standard CSAs charge per weekly box rather than per seasonal share.
  • member involvement. If being part of a community is important to you, look for a CSA that organizes educational workshops, volunteer workdays or seasonal potlucks.

Match CSA features with household needs

The CSA that suits a single person living in downtown Ottawa may not be the best fit for a 4-person household in the suburbs, so set clear priorities (flexible share sizes? home delivery? winter baskets?) and pick your CSA accordingly.  And don’t choose based on price alone: consider the total value the farm offers, including additional products and services and on-farm activities.

Make the most of the experience

To get the most from CSA membership, remember that it’s a very different experience from grocery shopping in a big-box outlet.  For example, as a CSA member, you:

  • share the benefits and risks of CSA farming. The goal of CSAs is to bring farmers and eaters into mutually supportive relationships in which they share the benefits and risks of growing food.  In other words, with good weather and good harvests, weekly baskets are plentiful; when poor weather or pests reduce crop yields, weekly baskets will be smaller and less varied.
  • become a seasonal eater. CSAs don’t offer the same foods year-round as supermarkets do. Instead, they bring you the best of the season. This may include items you’re not familiar with, so be willing to experiment. And while many CSAs provide members with recipes with each week’s basket, it makes sense to think ahead: learn what’s in season when, and make sure you have a supply of recipes on hand.

Are you a CSA member? How did you choose your CSA?

Related posts: 5 easy steps to seasonal eating, Join a CSA farm in 2013

10 ways to cut household food waste

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Photo: Nick Saltmarsh

When it comes to wasting food, I’m as guilty as anyone. My weakness is to forget about odds and ends in the fridge: half a lemon, say, or a nob of cucumber.  Months later, I find them again, wizened or semi-liquid, and very, very nasty.

One way or another, most of us waste food. A study released earlier this month by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers made headlines with its estimate that 30%-50% of the world’s food never makes it to our plates because it’s damaged or discarded somewhere along the food chain.  In Canada, about 40% of the food we produce each year  — some $27 billion worth – winds up in the garbage bin, says a November 2012 report from the George Morris Centre in Guelph, Ontario.  To boot, more than half of this waste takes place in our homes. 

While waste happens for different reasons in different parts of the world, the studies say that in North America, it stems mainly from consumers who demand cosmetically perfect produce, misunderstand best-before dates, and get carried away buying in bulk.

But whatever the reasons, when we waste food, we waste money and reduce what’s available for people in need.  We also squander the land, water, and energy resources required to grow, harvest, pack, ship and sell food. We can’t afford waste on this scale — especially in the face of climate change and a world population that could reach 9.5 billion by 2075, according to mid-range UN projections.

Since so much food waste occurs at home, here are 10 ways to start paring it down.

  1. Plan your menus ahead of time. Take stock of what you already have. Pick recipes that you’ll have time to prepare and will use up leftovers and perishables. Make a shopping list and stick to it.
  2. Use common sense about best-before dates. Most of us believe we should throw out anything that has reached its best-before date because it’s no longer safe to eat. But we’re wrong. According to the Canada Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the best-before date on a Canadian product is the date before which it’s freshest and most nutritious. That’s different from the expiry date some foods carry. Items that have passed the expiry date should be discarded, the CFIA says.
  3. Buy produce that doesn’t look perfect. It may not be the standard size or shape or have a uniform colour, but it will taste fine.
  4. Don’t buy in bulk unless you’re certain the food will get eaten. Otherwise you’ll end up throwing it away, along with the money you think you saved.
  5. Pre-portion foods sold in quantities larger than you need. Most foods – including herbs, bread and milk — can be frozen, so package your purchases into smaller servings and freeze them.
  6. Use up as much of a food item as you can. Instead of pitching those broccoli stalks, slice them for a stir fry; prepare stock from chicken bones; enhance the flavour of a tomato sauce by adding Parmesan cheese rind.
  7. Be creative with leftovers. If you’re not going to eat it in the next 4 days, freeze it. Otherwise, think outside the box: toss over-ripe fruit into a smoothie or stir wilted veggies into soups and stews. Find recipes for specific ingredients by checking out online resources such as Love Food Hate Waste or Love your leftovers.
  8. Be mindful when dining out. Restaurants often serve more than we can eat, so ask for a half portion or bring leftovers home for the next day.
  9. Donate non-perishable items to your local food bank, shelter or pantry (some organizations may accept perishable foods).
  10. Compost. The City of Ottawa provides a green bin program that collects and composts all types of household food waste.  If there’s no program where you live, consider composting your own food scraps to return nutrients to the soil and divert organic waste from landfill.

How do you reduce your home food waste?

Food read roundup: Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman and more

Saturday, January 19th, 2013

As you’d expect at this time of year, most media coverage of food issues has centred on reviews of last year’s trends or forecasts for 2013. In that category, I’ve picked two opinion pieces that I think offer particular insight. The past few weeks have also seen the issue of food waste finally get attention, while an unexpected controversy has emerged about soaring consumer demand for quinoa, the Andean super-grain.

Marion Nestle on food policy in 2013. She’s talking about U.S. food policy here, but since what happens south of the border often affects Canadian industry, consumers and policymakers, it’s worth including. Besides, this is Marion Nestle, author of What to Eat, and Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. A professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, she has become one of the most respected and independent commentators on food safety. Nestle calls it as she sees it, and in The Potentially Transformative Year Ahead in Food Policy, she predicts a more eventful 2013 now that the U.S. is out of election mode. Among other things, she predicts: FDA approval of genetically modified salmon (these salmon are raised in Canada and Panama); more pressure to label genetically modified foods; continued efforts to control childhood obesity through size caps and taxes on soda, and; a bigger push from grassroots groups to “create systems of food production and consumption that are healthier for people and the planet.”

Mark Bittman on priorities and patience. Among the opinions on how to fix the food system this year, Mark Bittman’s January 1 column in the New York Times stands out for me. In it, the well-known journalist, author, and sustainable food champion counsels anyone who wants to reinvent the way we produce and consume food to set clear goals, accept failures as part of progress, and above all, to recognize that meaningful change takes time. A long time. Civil rights, the vote for women and other major social advances have taken decades, even centuries, to fully accomplish. By the same token, it will take time to dismantle the current, complex industrial food system and replace it with one that’s better for our physical, social and environmental health. “Nothing affects public health…more than food,” says Bittman. (Let’s just hope that we have the time that’s required and don’t get pre-empted by climate change.)

Billions of tons of food waste. Thanks to an early January report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) in the U.K., the massive scale of the world’s food waste has become a hot topic. According to the report, anywhere from 30% to 50%, or about 2 billion tons, of food gets tossed out before it reaches our plates. The IME report attributes global food waste to factors such as Western consumers’ insistence that food look perfect, as well as BOGO promotions and overly strict best-before dates. These practices keep food from the hungry, use up significant natural resources, and jeopardize our ability to feed the world’s steadily growing population, the IME says. The waste theme was echoed in a Globe and Mail story on possible food price hikes in 2013, which concludes that readers need to become more aware of their food-waste habits and find more creative ways to use leftovers.

The quinoa controversy. There really is one. And it’s noteworthy because it underscores the potential for conflict between the demands of consumers in affluent countries and the needs of people in developing countries. In a nutshell, super-nutritious quinoa has become so popular in North America and the UK that its price has tripled, making the grain unaffordable for low-income people in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador — the countries that grow it and rely on it as a dietary staple. The issue has quickly become polarizing. For example, the past week saw the Guardian’s Joanna Blythman claim that quinoa has become a “troubling example of a damaging north-south exchange” while others, such as the Ottawa Citizen’s Elizabeth Payne, argued that all the angst is misplaced and that Andean farmers will benefit in the long run.

What have you been reading  about food lately?

Chef Justin Faubert’s confit of chicken with Castor River grain spaetzle

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013


Add this recipe to your collection if you’re looking for a new way to prepare leftover turkey or another seasonal bird. Although this calls for chicken, contributing chef Justin Faubert says you can substitute turkey, duck or goose.

 To prepare the recipe, Faubert uses poultry from James Haven Farms, and flour from Castor River Farm for the spaetzle. He suggests serving the finished dish with seasonal sides of roasted brussel sprouts and maple-glazed carrots.

A graduate of Vancouver’s Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, and holder of the Red Seal Chef designation, Justin Faubert has worked in several well-known Vancouver restaurants, including C Restaurant, Provence Mediterranean Grill and Provence Marinaside. During the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, he was hired by NBC Universal Sports as part of the culinary team at the Richmond Oval speed skating venue, providing food service to athletes, dignitaries, media and event staff. He recently moved to Ottawa, where he is a chef for Thyme and Again Catering and for his own private chef and consulting company, Landwaterfork Foods. He is also the local auditor for Leaders in Environmentally Accountable Foodservice (LEAF), a national sustainable foodservice standards organization.

 Confit of Chicken

Prep time: about 20 minutes

 4 chicken legs

1 tbsp salt

½ tbsp. sugar

½ tbsp chopped herbs – e.g., parsley, thyme, rosemary

¼ tsp powdered chili

¼ tsp lemon zest

2   cups rendered chicken fat* or olive oil

 *Rendering fat is a great way to use parts of the bird that would otherwise be thrown out. Remove the skin and fatty pieces and cover them with water in a stock pan or dutch oven. Cook over medium heat until the water has evaporated and the fat starts to turn colour. Strain off liquified fat.  Store rendered fat in the fridge and use in other dishes, such as roast potatoes.

 Combine all dry ingredients in a bowl. Set aside.

Rinse chicken legs under cold water and pat dry with a paper towel. Sprinkle legs on both sides with seasoning mixture and place in a single layer in a dish or pan. Refrigerate overnight or up to 24 hrs.

Preheat oven to 300˚F. Rinse seasoning mixture off the chicken with cold water and pat dry. Place chicken in a baking dish in a single layer. Cover completely with rendered fat or olive oil (this may take more or less than the 2 cups depending on the size of the chicken legs and the baking dish). Cook in the oven for about 3 hours or until the meat falls from the bone.

Let meat cool completely in the fat. (It can be kept in the fridge for several weeks, covered in the rendered fat or olive oil.)

To serve, remove the legs and excess fat. Place them leg skin side down in a medium-hot pan and cook 3-4 minutes or until the skin is golden brown. Turn the legs over and continue to cook until warmed through.

The meat can also be removed from the leg, shredded and used in pastas, pot pies and stews.

 Castor River Grain Spaetzle

Serves 3-4 as a side dish

Prep time: about 10 minutes

 1 cup spelt flour

1/3 cup whole wheat flour

2 eggs

2/3 cup milk

1 ½ tsp salt

¼ tsp nutmeg – optional

 In a bowl, combine spelt, wheat flour, salt and nutmeg. Whisk eggs in a separate mixing bowl. Alternately whisk flours and milk into the eggs to avoid lumps. When all ingredients are combined, allow mixture to rest for at least 20 minutes. The finished dough should be smooth and thick, like a thickened pancake batter.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Using a spaetzle press or colander, press a ladleful of dough through the holes into the boiling water. Once the dough rises to the top, remove it with a slotted spoon and place it in a bowl of cold water. When it has cooled, remove it from the water and dry. Reserve.

To finish the spaetzle, heat a pan with a splash of oil and/or butter over medium-high heat. Add the spaetzle and fry until browned and crispy, stirring occasionally to avoid sticking. Season with salt, pepper and a pinch of fresh herbs.

Tip: This recipe is a great base; feel free to add herbs, mustard, spices and other flavours.

What’s your favourite recipe for leftover poultry or game birds?

Aubin Farm on their non-standard CSA, no-waste policy and the future of family farms

Friday, January 11th, 2013


Photo: Aubin Farm

Like many family farmers in the Ottawa region,   Tim Aubin and his wife Roshan are hard- working, innovative DIYers.  And like most local food advocates, they’re committed to producing food in ways that minimize waste, protect soil and water, and reconnect people with good-tasting, healthy food.

A certified organic operation, Aubin Farm grows vegetables and raises grass-fed beef and lamb, as well as chickens, turkeys and ducks on 160 acres near Spencerville, south of Ottawa. Besides selling at the farm gate and local farmers’ markets, the Aubins offer a non-standard CSA program which provides 30 to 35 members in Ottawa and across the region with regular home delivery of fresh produce. In 2013, the Aubins hope to expand the program to about 60 members.

Tim Aubin talked to Earthward about his and Roshan’s farm practices and their concerns about the future of family farming.

How did you and Roshan start farming?

I was born in England and farmed in Australia, western Canada and Africa before settling here in 1997 with Roshan, a former teacher and a native of Tanzania. Having seen big commercial farms up close, we knew we wanted to farm organically. We started out growing flowers, but kept an organic vegetable garden for ourselves, partly because we’d had one in Africa, but also because we hated the taste of supermarket produce. When we took our surplus garden vegetables to market with the flowers, we watched demand for them take off. This turned us toward full-time food production, although we still grow roses, mostly as a hobby.

How does Aubin Farm’s box delivery program work?

Beginning in early May, program members receive a weekly box with 10 to 12 items of the farm’s best seasonal produce, much of it heirloom varieties.  Because we use naturally heated greenhouses to extend the season, we can deliver well into the fall. For example, in 2012, we delivered the last boxes in early November, and in 2013, we plan to continue into December. Customers can add other farm products to their boxes, such as eggs, chicken or Roshan’s preserves. There’s more information about the program on our website and, starting this year, we’ll provide updates on our Facebook page.

 Are you a standard CSA?

Unlike traditional CSAs, we don’t ask for payment at the beginning of the season.  Instead, we charge a flat rate of $40 per box delivered. This offers flexibility for subscribers who go on holiday and evens out our cash flow.

Tell me about Aubin Farm’s no-waste policy and why it’s important to you.

It’s strenuous to produce whatever you produce so why throw it away? In fact, not wasting what you grow can be as important to revenues as growing more.

Everything we produce is sold or made into something else or we use it ourselves.  For example, Roshan makes her specialty chutneys, pickles and cooked-to-order Indian cuisine with unsold farm food. If we have surpluses, we provide them to The Branch Restaurant and Texas Grill or donate them to local fundraisers such as MarketPlates.

We compost vegetable remnants to fertilize the soil or feed them to our animals.  Every year, we take wool sheared from our mixed breed sheep to PEI for processing into yarn and blankets. After our sheep go to the butcher, their skins are processed for sale. Customers can order blankets and sheepskins by contacting Roshan or me.

What challenges do you see for small-scale, family farms these days?

One issue is the many rules and regulations to follow, a number of which favour the big players.  For example, a small chicken farmer in Ontario can’t have a flock larger than 300 birds. If you want more, you have to buy quota, which is 14,000 birds. There’s nothing in between. 

Another challenge is that there are fewer and fewer abattoirs left in Ontario. Mobile abattoirs have been under discussion for some time. They’d offer a sensible, fuel-efficient solution that would save farmers long trips to the nearest facility.

For all farmers there’s a legacy problem. Many of us are in our 50s and 60s: who’s going to replace us when they retire? Young people are interested in farming but money remains an real obstacle: the capital requirements are huge. We must all pay more attention to the future of our food system. As a society, we tend to look at health at the level of hospitals and drugs, but health really starts with food.

Photo: V.Ward


Join a CSA farm in 2013

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

If you want to eat tastier, fresher, more eco-friendly food in 2013, consider joining a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, farm. In the industrial food system, many layers separate eaters from farmers. These include processors, packers, shippers, wholesalers, retailers and others.  By contrast, CSAs bring eaters and farmers into direct relationships that help strengthen communities and local economies.

CSA members pay a flat rate at the start of the season for a share of what the farm harvests that year. This way, the farmer knows in advance how much to produce and can cover the costs of producing it. In return, members receive fresh, local food grown by people they know and trust.

CSAs begin signing up members in late winter and early spring, so this is a good time to learn about CSAs in the Ottawa region and find one that fits your needs.  

Where did CSAs get started and how many are there in North America?

The CSA model has its roots in community farm initiatives in Japan and Chile in the 1970s, and in the European biodynamic farming tradition. While there are few statistics on CSAs in Canada, the number of these farms appears to be growing. In the U.S., there are an estimated 6,000 to 6,500 CSAs.

How does CSA membership work?

You pay a set rate, in advance, for a weekly or bi-weekly basket/box of seasonal produce that you collect from the farm or from a drop-off spot. Some CSAs do home delivery. In addition to vegetables and herbs, baskets may also contain fruit, honey, meat, poultry and eggs, depending on the farm. You’ll enjoy bigger baskets when harvests are good and smaller ones when yields are less plentiful.

Will I get baskets year-round or only in summer?

Bryson Farms is one Ottawa area CSA that provides year-round service. However, most CSA seasons start in May or June and wind up sometime in the fall.

What can I expect to pay for CSA membership?

In the Ottawa area, typical rates range from $300 to $650 for the season. That said, you may pay more or less depending on factors such as the number of people in your household, the length of the CSA’s season and the products it offers. Some non-standard CSA farms charge per basket or box rather having than a flat seasonal rate.

Is CSA farming more environmentally sustainable?

Farming on a small scale for a local market is more environmentally sustainable. For example, in the industrial food system, fresh produce travels about 2,414 km (1,500 miles) before reaching the consumer. By contrast, food from a local CSA farm will have traveled less than 161 km (100 miles) and is likely to have been grown without fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides.

I’m concerned about the recent safety scares in the industrial food system. Is food from a CSA farm safer?

What’s clear is that belonging to a CSA farm offers more transparency than buying food from your neighbourhood big box store or fast-food franchise. As a CSA member, you know the farmer who grows the lettuce, raises the chicken and harvests the honey in your basket this week. And you can visit the farm, see how the food is grown, and provide feedback on your food. If a safety problem arises, it will be on a much smaller scale than the kind of thing we’ve seen with XL Foods in Canada or Chamberlain Farms in the U.S. With industrial food operations, safety issues can affect many thousands of products and pinpointing the source of the problem can take time.

You’ve mentioned fresher food, traceability, support for family farms and sustainability. Do CSAs provide other benefits?

The CSA model has always been about building community. Individual farms approach this differently. Most CSAs issue newsletters to update members about what’s happening on the farm. Some encourage members to participate in volunteer workdays; others hold harvest celebrations, workshops or other events. All offer the opportunity for people to reconnect with food and farming.

Do you belong to a CSA? What motivated you to join?