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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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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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Manitoba Spud Wars: Small producers vs Peak of the Market

Welcome to Battle Potato! In this corner, we have Peak of the Market, a non-profit marketing board that has been given the power to regulate the sale and marketing of root vegetables in Manitoba. In the other corner, we have The Potato Coalition of Manitoba, a group of small potato farmers, farmers’ markets and citizens who want to ensure that consumers have choice when it comes to their potatoes.

Potato.

So what’s the big deal about potatoes and Peak? As a consumer of potatoes (yum yum), I am concerned about what the changes mean to me. According to The Potato Coalition of Manitoba, new regulations enacted on March 31, 2010 limit the choice that consumers have when purchasing potatoes from smaller producers. The details are posted on their website, and the claims are backed up with links to the new regulations: the Potato (Freshly Dug) Seasonal Farmers’ Market/Roadside Stand Exemption Order and the Potato (Freshly Dug) Seasonal Retail Production and Marketing Exemption Order.

So which specific items concern me the most? First, the fact that after November 1 of every year, I won’t have access to my choice of locally-grown potatoes. No local blue potatoes, no local heritage varieties, no local fingerling potatoes. If I want local, I must buy russet, red or Yukon Gold, which are the only three varieties that Peak of the Market carries.

Second, local restaurants that I support and love must buy from Peak of the Market if they want locally-grown potatoes. Again, this will severely limit the choice that these restaurants have in selecting produce for their customers. If Fusion Grill (just one restaurant known for its hyper-local menu) gets it in its head to serve lavender-coloured mashed potatoes this summer, made from local Russian Blue potatoes, good luck getting them from Peak of the Market.

Third, if a small producer hasn’t sold their entire crop by November 1, they must forfeit the profit from those potatoes. Even though potatoes are eminently storable, the producer must donate their remaining crop to a food bank. Laudable? Yes. Has the potential to drive small producers out of the potato market for fear of not breaking even? Yes. I suspect this may have been at the core of last September’s potato news story in which a local potato grower basically said it wasn’t worth growing potatoes if Peak of the Market would just force him to give them away.

Finally, I found this may have tossed a damper on a new project that I only just now found out about: my new favourite place to go shopping even though it’s not open yet. A year-round farmers’ market is being developed in the James Avenue pumping station in Point Douglas. This wonderful, fantastic thing is now threatened by these regulations. If producers can’t sell their potatoes in the winter, then there will be no potato producers at the year-round farmers’ market. Yes, there will be other things to sell, but the fact that such a storable food item can’t be sold is ridiculous, and could threaten the future of the year-round market.

Cue distress.

Fortunately, there is hope. The Potato Coalition met with Minister Stan Struthers (Minister of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Initiatives) to discuss their concerns, and they report that the meeting went well. They will also be meeting with Peak of the Market on April 16 to try to get further exemptions for small producers.

This summer should be interesting. I’m hoping that the exemption is granted. If it’s not, we could face the possibility of a summer with no potatoes at the farmers’ markets. (Why plant potatoes if you’re not sure you can sell them all?) If you’re interested in helping, check out the Coalition’s “Get Involved” page.

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