Category Archives: Opinion

Hopes for 2013

I hope everyone had a safe and lovely holiday season! We had a great time, and I was finally able to take a breather from what has been a tremendous flurry of craziness at work.

The next step after New Year’s – resolutions – represents a chance for everyone to voice what they hope will come to pass this year: lose some weight, save some money, declutter the house, what have you. Rather than doing my typical navel-gazing, I’m turning the resolution thing around for this post and will list what I hope to see happen in the Winnipeg food world in 2013.

Framed.

There’s already been one huge announcement: the owner of Hermano’s announced today that he is in negotiations to reopen the revolving restaurant at Fort Garry Place. Better yet, the restaurant – which will be appropriately called Prairie 360 – will focus on locally-grown, Manitoba-inspired food. I am so thrilled about this, and am sending all the good vibes I can at this venture. They hope to open the new restaurant this fall.

I have a few other things that I’m hoping for this year, as well:

Backyard chickens and bees. First, I would like the city of Winnipeg to come to a sane and progressive decision about allowing residents to keep backyard chickens and bees. To be honest, I think the chicken people are sort of their own worst enemy (really? taking a chicken to a council meeting? That’s step 2 in “how to alienate your audience”…), but I’m hoping that their report is well-received. Having clear suggestions on how to limit the impact of backyard chickens and bees is a great step, and I’m looking forward to seeing how council responds.

More food trucks. Last year, Bartley Kives of the Winnipeg Free Press did a great piece on the state of food trucks and other street eats in Winnipeg. He detailed why there weren’t many (oppressive regulations) and explained what the city was doing to actively discourage them (shutting down stands operated by established eateries). On the other hand, other cities, like Toronto and Vancouver, have been actively encouraging food trucks with festivals and a expansion of licenses issued. We saw some growth this past summer, with new entries like Pimp My Rice, Stuff It and Little Bones. I’d love to see this continue in 2013.

More accessible restaurant inspection reports. This is a topic I’ve been advocating for a while, so I’m not holding my breath on seeing any action on it anytime soon. Basically, I’d like to see a more consumer-friendly way to tell how well your favourite eatery has done on its last inspection. My gold standard is the way Toronto does it: colour-coded cards that must be displayed near the front entrance, showing a green, yellow or red card based on their inspection. (The Toronto site also explains, in plain English, the difference between a minor infraction and a major infraction. Manitoba doesn’t make that clear at all.)

However, the province recently took over the inspections for the city of Winnipeg, and they are now in charge of reporting closures and convictions. They do seem to be keeping up with it a bit better than the city did, but I would also like to see if the diner down the street passed with flying green colours. The ball is in their court on this one, and 2013 would be a great year to make this change.

Those are my big three. There are a few others, but I’m interesting in what you think. What would you like to see this year?

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What’s Not at Our Farmers’ Markets

We have returned from spending some time in Ohio, visiting family and friends. As part of our trip, we visited a farmers’ market that has popped up in my hometown, right downtown under an overpass bridge next to the river. It’s nicer than it sounds, and even in the morning we were glad for the shade.

The local food movement isn’t confined to Manitoba, fortunately. Wherever you go during the summer, you’re likely to find some kind of market where farmers sell direct to the consumer. (Some of them might not be quite so local, so do your homework before you go.) Ohio and Manitoba are a few zones apart in terms of the things that you can grow. There were lots of similar items, but one of the things that is missing from the Manitoba markets was peaches.

Peaches at the Kent Farmers' Market

Until I moved away, I totally took fresh peaches for granted. The ones we get from Ontario are nice; in fact I found some delicious ones at Safeway last week. But they’re not this fresh. I really miss them. Manitoba excels at blueberries, while Ohio does not, but peaches… Mmm.

Another thing that stood out at the market we visited was dairy. There were at least two goat milk producers at the market. One of them was selling litres of frozen goat milk, and both of them sold various types of goat cheeses, including flavoured fetas. I thought about how wonderful it would be to complete my shopping at the market: fruit, vegetables, eggs, milk… and dairy.

But unless the law changes, that’s unlikely to happen.

There is nothing in the Manitoba guidelines or regulations preventing dairy from being sold. The problem – and here is where my naïveté about economics becomes evident – is the agriculture marketing boards in Canada. They limit who can sell a product, when, to whom, and for how much. For dairy, farmers have to buy quotas – which are limited – in order to produce to sell. This effectively keeps new, smaller producers out of the market, and also removes the possibility of niche producers from jumping in to grab the smaller market share available at a farmers’ market. (And please, if I’m totally out to lunch on this, let me know in the comments.)

I am torn on this issue. I see the benefits of having a mandatory marketing board, but the consumers are really the losers in these cases. I remember the hullabaloo over Peak of the Market’s clamping down on local potato producers. That was eventually resolved, but the thought of having to fight that battle for every type of food stuff is a bit exhausting. This type of marketing board is becoming less and less popular, and I’m sure everyone in Winnipeg knows what the Canadian government did to the Canada Wheat Board.

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For someone who just wants to buy locally-produced food, preferably directly from the producer and without having to travel all over the countryside to get everything I need, this is all a bit depressing. In the meantime, I’ll do what I can, and keep my eyes open for new and exciting food available at our own local markets.

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Urban Bees… for the Birds?

I’m experiencing a wave of déjà vu.

Back in 2010, the city turned down a request from residents to study allowing backyard chicken coops (and chickens!) within city limits. Despite chickens being legal (within stated limitations) in several US cities, Canadian cities have balked at allowing residents to keep a small number of hens.

Today, Winnipeg city council’s protection and community services committee voted to review the bylaw that prevents residents from keeping honeybees within city limits. At least this time, the idea has gotten further than the chicken proposal did.

Juneau Bee

However, I’m feeling rather pessimistic about the whole thing. To being with, the NIMBYs (or rather, the NIMNBYs – Not In My Neighbours’ Backyards) are already crying. They (or their kid) are incredibly allergic to bee stings. They want to be able to continue to use their backyard without getting invaded by their neighbours’ bees. If their neighbours get bees, they’re getting a can of Raid… and so on.

These are very similar to the pre-emptive complaints leveled against the backyard chicken proposal. Unknowledgeable opponents alleged that chickens are loud, smelly and unsanitary. However, if they’d actually read the proposal, they would have seen that the limitations and regulations proposed along with the by-law change would have mitigated a lot of those concerns. The proposal to allow beekeeping has similar provisions, but I expect those provisions to get shoved aside as people who assume rather than research rant and rave their way to City Hall… And end up getting their way.

First, we’re talking about honeybees here, not wasps. The aggressive wasps that invade your backyard picnic in the late summer are not bees. Honeybees tend to keep to themselves, and only get angry if you pester them or mess with their hive. Honeybees are looking for nectar, not your burger. They will typically sting only as a last resort, because if they sting you they will die.

Wasps, specifically yellow jackets, on the other hand, are predators. They are after your burger because it tastes good to them. They are aggressive, and will sting with little provocation. They can also sting multiple times, since using their stinger will not kill them. Wikipedia has a nice table on the differences between different types of bees and wasps to make it even more clear. I think most of the fear of honeybees is actually misplaced fear of wasps. Wasps don’t produce honey, so no one will voluntarily be keeping those anyway!

Charles Polcyn, the president of the Red River Apiarist Association and the origin of the request to the city, also had several ideas that would make any urban beekeeper a better neighbour. These restrictions included certification of the beekeeper, fresh water located on the property for the bees, a minimum lot size of at least 50′ by 100′, and a six-foot barrier around the hives (such as a shrub), which would force the bees to fly up to look for nectar rather than through a neighbour’s yard.

Right now, chickens and bees are both included in Winnipeg’s Exotic Animal By-Law, even though they are hardly exotic. With some forethought and care, both can be just as good neighbours – if not better – than the neighbor with the large, loud, but perfectly legal dog… And put Winnipeg alongside cities that allow apiaries, such as Vancouver or Calgary.

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Food Policies Make an Appearance on Election Platforms – Finally!

It was with a great deal of excitement – and a healthy dose of cynicism – that I read that all of the major parties have included food and agriculture concerns as part of their platforms.

Lettuce.

Food is such an incredibly important part of everyone’s lives and community, and I’m heartened that the parties are finally taking note of this. However, I also agree with Rod MacRae, who was quoted in the Globe and Mail on why these issues are finally getting some attention:

On Monday, the parties will hash out their respective policies at a debate in Ottawa. But one food policy critic said none of the platforms are detailed enough to take seriously.

“None of them really link the food story to health care that well, or to social-policy reform,” said Rod MacRae, a professor at York University who is one of Canada’s foremost experts on the subject. “What they’ve done is pick the low-hanging fruit – the things that are more part of the public consciousness right now.”

And really, when you look at the details of the platforms and plans, that’s really all we see: the superficial issues surrounding Canada’s food policy – or rather, it’s lack thereof. Over the past several years, people have become more and more aware of where their food comes from, and they are starting to see the problems in the current food system. All the political parties have done is grab what big issues have gotten the most traction, and wiggled them into their platforms.

The Globe article has a summary of each of the major parties’ platforms, or you can go to each party’s website and read their full platform for yourself. It’s a lot of good stuff, although each party has areas where they’re a bit weak. For example, the Greens have a lot of good ideas, but seem to be missing some of the “big picture” stuff like the challenges of feeding a growing nation with a dwindling number of farms, while the Conservatives seem to be focused on “big agriculture” while ignoring the needs of the consumers who want choice.

Here’s what I’d like to see addressed in more detail:

Education components for food strategies. While the Liberals and the NDP talk about educating students on healthy food choices, no party goes into much detail about education for all Canadians, not just the young. While I agree that the basis for change is best approached through young people, food issues are complicated and people have a difficult time understanding the issues involved. Federal assistance in the development of local food policy councils, such as those in Vancouver and Toronto, would assist people in understanding the issues that local farmers, producers and consumers are facing.

Consumer choice. The boondoggle with Peak of the Market and Manitoba’s potato growers last spring and the ongoing fight for raw milk producers shows that consumers want to be able to choose and eat the foods that they want. In some cases, the government steps in and tells them, “No, you can’t.” A little less nanny-state and a little more flexibility for non-mainstream foods (like raw milk and cheese) would be nice. I’m also not fond of the condescension that is sometimes leveled at consumers when it comes to food safety.

Food safety. This ties in nicely with my previous points. An educated consumer is a safe consumer, because they are able to make smart decisions about their food choices. But at the same time, food needs to be produced in a safe manner. I was highly irritated during the Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis outbreak in 2008 when it seemed that the CFIA and Health Canada were turning around the problem onto consumers with their trotted out tag lines that listeria can be killed by heating the food. We saw the same thing when E.coli cropped up in spinach in 2006. I don’t know about you, but I typically don’t microwave my deli meat or thoroughly cook my spinach salad before eating it. Letting large food corporations monitor their own food safety alone (or having announced inspections, which might as well mean no inspections at all) strikes me as silly. The Conservatives, the Liberals and the Bloc all promise more funds for the CFIA.

But again, my cynicism is showing – no matter who is elected, I doubt there will be any substantive change. It’ll remain up to each individual to do their research and make smart decisions about what they eat, at least until government really gets it.

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New Years’ Resolution: Waste Not, Want Not (Part 2)

Yesterday, I presented my New Year’s foodie resolution – to stop wasting food. We do pretty good, since we already buy things with a plan and create strategies to use food before it goes off. We’re not always successful, as you can see in this photo, but we try our best! And in the new year, we hope to do better.

Sprouted potato.

Here are four more things that you (and we!) can do to stop wasting food.

Inventory your pantry before running to the store.
This is one that I am bad for not doing, and explains how we once ended up with four unopened bottles of Worcestershire sauce. After you’ve made your menu, check your pantry to make sure you’re not buying things that you already have.

Also, look for opportunities to substitute things! For example, if your recipe calls for sweet potatoes but you have a butternut squash sitting around, try substituting the squash for the sweet potatoes. This way you use the squash and save money by not buying sweet potatoes this week.

Exercise restraint.
I am my mother’s daughter, no matter how hard I try to deny it. So when I see a fantastic deal on something at the grocery store or the market, I want to grab it. Instead, I make myself pause and consider what else we already have.

A 10 pound bag of potatoes might be on sale for a great price, but if we already have 4 pounds of potatoes that we haven’t used yet, will the ten pound bag get used before the potatoes go off? This is why I’m so leery of shopping at a warehouse store like Costco. It’s easy to get sucked into a great deal (“Wow! Five gallons of mayonnaise!”) but if you’re not going to use it all before it goes bad, it might not be a good deal! One thing you can do, though, is break down large quantities of stuff like meats and freeze them in sensible, individually-wrapped packages. Which brings me to…

Freeze surpluses.
The world certainly changed when we got our chest freezer. No longer were we limited by the tiny over-fridge freezer. By the time the farmers’ market closed and my garden was put away for the winter, our freezer was filled to bursting with frozen beans, corn, shredded zucchini, peas, grass-fed ground beef, broccoli, pierogies, strawberries, raspberries, sausage, bacon, and an assortment of baked goods. Basically, if there wasn’t an immediate use for it, I froze it. This let me save a lot more of our garden produce this year than I was able to last year, which was a very good thing. This year my bean plants produced about 100 pounds of beans over the course of the summer, far more than we could eat on our own. (I’ll be doing a post later on in 2011 on how to save fresh vegetables by freezing them.)

My goal is to have the freezer mostly emptied by the time spring rolls around, so lots of our dinners right now have a “freezer dive” component to them. (Speaking of which, we have a giant bag of pierogies that we should start using…)

Use everything.
Recipes that encourage waste really irritate me. For example, I’ve run across lots of recipes that call for egg whites, and very often the recipe will encourage the cook to “discard the yolks.” Or a recipe for wilted swiss chard will direct the cook to cut out the swiss chard’s ribs and toss them, when they’re perfectly edible. The yolks can be kept in the fridge and added to an omelet tomorrow for breakfast. The chard ribs can be chopped and used like celery in a stir fry. There’s no excuse for using a tablespoon of tomato paste and leaving the rest in the fridge to slowly mold over.

So when I find a recipe that calls for one of these wasteful actions, I will add a meal later on in the same week that will use whatever the first recipe called to have discarded. There’s a certain sense of satisfaction knowing that you’ve just used your brain and saved yourself some money in the process.

Reducing our food waste is one of my resolutions for this year. What are your foodie resolutions?

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New Years’ Resolution: Waste Not, Want Not (Part 1)

I hope everyone had a safe and happy New Years! I’m not one for making a list of resolutions, but the beginning of the year is a natural time to think about things you want to change.

Happy New Year.

I never took economics in college, but I think it’s a no-brainer to say that the economic climate plays a role in what people think about. And journalists, who are always striving to find something of interest to their readers, tend to write about things that their readers are thinking about.

Thus, this year and last we have seen many articles about food waste. For example, this article from MacLeans in 2009 states that in Canada, almost 40% of all food produced is waste; it’s either destroyed or rots just after production, during transit, at the store, or once it reaches the consumer. Everyone with a crisper in their refrigerator has experienced the horror of realizing that the leafy green in the drawer might be a bit older than you thought, or digging through the freezer to find a lump of an unidentified meat-like substance freezer-burned beyond all recognition. Cleaning liquefied vegetables out of the fridge or tossing icy brown masses of food is no fun, and represents wasted food and money. And for people with gardens, it also represents wasted time and effort.

Besides just making sure to eat things before they go off, there are some things you can do to prevent wasting food.

Make a menu plan and a shopping list every week.
We’ve tried hard to minimize the amount of food we waste by planning out our meals, making shopping lists based on those meals, and then only buying what’s on our shopping list. (Even the best laid plans go astray, of course. We tend to make a lot of spontaneous purchases at the farmers’ market, since we never know what we’re going to find.) We leave some flex room if we find something intriguing that we’d like to try – for example, when we ran across dragonfruit for the first time. When we do find something neat, though, we’ll just buy enough to try it – not the big value size. In the end, making the menu, preparing the shopping list, and sticking to our plan makes sure that we’re only buying what we need.

Have a plan for the leftovers, too.
Over time, you come to learn which meals will typically have leftovers. As you create your dinner menu for the week, make another plan for the leftovers. One of the easiest things to do with leftovers is to take them to work the next day as your lunch. Not all things make good leftovers, of course, but many pastas, casseroles, curries, and one-dish meals make fantastic lunches. You can also keep things to incorporate into dinners later in the week. For example, leftover rice can be turned into fried rice. Leftover pasta sauce can be used as a sauce for a sandwich. Leftover chicken can be turned into chicken ala king or chicken salad. And salad greens that do not have dressing on them can go back into the fridge for tomorrow night’s dinner.

Tomorrow I’ll have four more ideas for you (and me!) to help stop wasting food that we buy.

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Farmers' Market Finds: Fungi and Potatoes

One of the things that I simply love about going to the farmers’ market is the sheer variety of stuff you can find. A walk through the market on a crisp fall morning will reveal a wealth of squashes, heirloom tomatoes, oddball cauliflowers (I like the orange ones), and meats you simply can’t find at the grocery store.

Now, mainstream supermarkets are getting better, to a point, in the variety they carry. You can now find lemongrass and starfruit and bok choi at a well-stocked supermarket, things that you had to get from speciality stores a few years ago.

But there are still things that I’ve only found at the farmer’s market. We picked two of them up this week.

Russian Blue Potatoes

The first are these Russian Blue potatoes. They’re really quite neat. The colour remains after you cook them, so you can get some interesting shades in your dishes. They’re also a fairly firm, starchy potato, and can be used in place of russets for most recipes. (Even better, they aren’t like beets – the colour won’t transfer to the cutting board and the table and your shirt and the cat…)

Chanterelles

The second neat thing we got were these chanterelles. We’d seen evidence of chanterelles before: a sign and an empty box, with an apologetic seller standing next to it. But this week we got up early. This week we made it to the market not too long after it opened. This week… We got to the chanterelles before they all disappeared.

This week I’ll tell you about what we did with our loot!

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