by ANDREW KOOMAN, Red Deer Express
Much attention is put on local food in the spring and summer months when farmer’s markets roar to life across Central Alberta. But what about buying local food in the winter?
Dwayne Gauthier, co- owner and head chef at Restaurant 27 in Red Deer, champions local producers and growers. Eighty per cent of the restaurant’s menu is from Red Deer and area, most of it local meats such as beef, bison, elk, pork, lamb, and occasionally alpaca. About 15% of the produce on the menu is locally grown, supplied primarily by a farm in Sylvan Lake.
“We should be trying to put the money back as much as we can into the local economy,” he says. The small restaurant uses 12 to 15 local suppliers year round and purchases more than
$50,000 of goods annually from local producers.
Like many Central Albertans, Gauthier supplies his crisper with vegetables from the Market at Red Deer throughout the summer, stocking up with hundreds of dollars of local vegetables for the menu each week.
“During the winter we have to go outside the box,” he says.
While it may be difficult to find locally produced food in the winter, Rene Michalak of Rethink Red Deer argues that access to local food year round is essential to developing a sustainable community. Michalak cautions that if Red Deer were ever to be cut off from the trucks shipping in its food, the City would only have a three- day supply on shelves.
“We’re in a very vulnerable position. We haven’t had much attention paid to it because there hasn’t been an interruption of the stream of goods coming in.”
Michalak notes that the current push for a year- round market in Red Deer is crucial not only for food security, but to give consumers more choice in the food they eat and to provide a better quality of food.
While purchasing local food is good for the local economy and the environment, it does not necessarily ensure a higher nutritional value, says registered dietitian Shirlee Hegge of Fresh Start
Local, organic food “ends up being a personal choice based on cost, appearance, and taste of the food,” she says.
However, certain vegetables are more prone to nutrient loss when transported longer distances, Hegge says, especially beans, peppers, and tomatoes. For nutrition- conscious consumers and local growers that is why a year- round market is a welcome idea.
Carmen Fuentes has been growing greenhouse produce for 11 years. Her family’s Hillside Greenhouses is the newest member of the Innisfail Growers cooperative, which sells vegetables and preserves throughout the year. In the winter they sell primarily in Calgary.
The cooperative collects email addresses from customers at summer farmer’s markets in Central Alberta and sends email updates about winter markets like the one in Red Deer on Jan. 15 at the Eastview Estates Community Hall. It’s one way the growers are trying to raise the profile of local food.
Fuentes highlights that beyond the quality in taste, another reason consumers like locally produced food is the personal touch. “If you buy from the store, being able to talk to someone who grew [your produce] is mostly impossible.”
The direct approach appeals to Gauthier who can assure his patrons that the produce and meat served in house is “all organic with no pesticides or herbicides.”
His business relationship with Ivan Smith of Big Bend Market in Red Deer is based on trust. Smith supplies the restaurant most of its meat.
“They know and deal on a one- to- one basis with every farmer and producer they use in their store.”
Until a year- round market is established in Red Deer, residents will have to establish relationships with local growers and be creative about where to get their local produce during winter months.
“We have so much capacity and some of the best soil in the world here,” says Michalak.
With some planning and a little greenthumbing, proactive residents can eat local produce in the winter months by stocking their freezers and cupboards with home grown yields.