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How You Can Eat Fresh & Local Wherever You Are

by Nastasha Alli October 05, 2016

How You Can Eat Fresh & Local Wherever You Are

Nastasha joins us as a guest blogger, sharing her journey towards everyday sustainable eating. Making changes to your daily eating habits while making a socially-conscious impact with your purchase can be a big task - but we find that learning from others is the best way to start!

It’s a crisp evening in September and I’m standing on a rooftop in downtown Toronto, while volunteers water 108 plant boxes filled with tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, and basil - everything I want in a late summer salad right about now.

“Some plants just go bonanza up here,” says Jen Broadbent, a coordinator with Cultivate Toronto, an organization that connects communities with local food through urban agriculture. They supply produce for the Regent Park Farmer's Market, grown primarily on a rooftop farm filled with plastic “earth boxes” - basically, large bins that allow plants to thrive in spaces otherwise unsuitable for any kind of gardening.

Directly facing a growing block of new condominium towers, this summer must have been a scorcher for the farm’s crops. Up here, there’s no reprieve from the glaring sun. “Certain types of plants love it, other plants…love it less,” Jen ventures with a chuckle.

At the tail end of winter - sometime in late March to early April - volunteers bring seedlings out to the rooftop for planting. “Right at the beginning, prepping the (earth) boxes is a huge amount of work,” says Jen. “You always underestimate it!”

“Our volunteers come mainly to water, harvest and do maintenance,” she explains; these tasks include spraying kale and chard with neem oil (a natural pest deterrent), putting in stakes for tomatoes, and pulling up squashes with nibble marks from neighbourhood squirrels. “They really love butternut,” Jen sighs, “but we just learn how to live with them.”

A medley of produce at their peak - grown on a rooftop in the city
"A medley of produce at their peak - grown on a rooftop in the city”.
Photo credit (above and lead image): Jen Broadbent/Cultivate Toronto

Prime harvesting season kicks in just before the farmers market starts in June. This year, the farm produced:

  • six varieties of tomatoes, including beefsteak, yellow pear, black cherry and yellow zebra
  • tomatillos
  • cucumbers (a great vegetable to farm vertically, as they provide shade for other plants)
  • eggplants, including globe and Japanese varieties
  • okra (whose stalks grow to over five feet in one season)
  • globe (purple) and regular basil
  • yellow and green beans
  • Swiss chard
  • several varieties of kale, including curly, black, red and green
  • cabbages
  • radishes
  • parsley
  • leeks
  • onions
  • sage
  • lemon and regular thyme
  • lemon balm
  • tarragon
  • chocolate and regular mint
  • hot peppers, including banana, poblano and finger chilli varieties (“I have traffic red jars of chilli in my fridge right now,” Jen shares, “I pickled so many!”)
  • sweet bell peppers
  • zucchini
  • butternut squash
  • potatoes

At the peak of summer, the garden has “a three week period where all you get are cucumbers, then a two week period where you’re drowning in zucchini,” she continues. “Tomatoes just keep growing, they don’t stop. The herbs, kale and chard are constantly producing. It’s really not a lot of work; we just stick ‘em in there.”

Jen and her fellow volunteers harvest vegetables at the farm
Jen and her fellow volunteers harvest vegetables at the farm”.
Photo credit: Nastasha Alli

Jen is Australian, though she’s lived in Toronto for several years. “I didn’t really know anyone when I first moved here. I saw a volunteer listing for Cultivate Toronto, so I came along and stayed.”

Living in Canada has made her more aware of eating seasonally, she shares. “In Australia, our seasons aren’t as defined. Here, in the summer, all you eat is tomatoes and cucumbers and zucchini, because that’s what’s available; it’s fresh and it feels like the right time of year to be eating them.” Then, as fall sets in, “that transitions into heavier soups and stews where you want carrots and potatoes, and that’s when they grow. It makes it feel so natural to know that what you’re eating is at its peak.”

Cooking with what’s in season also “makes you more inventive with cooking,” she adds. “You really have to think of different things to do with tomatoes - so many tomatoes! I’m definitely sick of them right now, but in six months, I’ll look forward to them a lot. It’s a perfect cycle.”

With a surplus of kale and chard, Jen turns to her freezer. “I wash and dry the leaves, then chop them into little pieces. It’s similar to buying frozen spinach; my freezer is full of zip locked bags of kale. They’re great for adding into soups, especially potato and leek (which are also grown on the farm).”

Over time, “I like that you can see things change every week; my reasons for doing this are quite selfish on some level,” she adds with a grin. “It’s like a hobby - I like watching plants grow. I also like cooking, so being able to grow something and then go home and cook it thinking ‘I grew that?’ is pretty cool!”

Above all, Jen shares, “I really like how much you can learn - the amount of learning I’ve done is amazing. If you asked me two years ago about any of this information, I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything.”

One thing I realize, towering above the Toronto skyline, is that if you really wanted to reduce the distance that food travels from its source to your plate, you could start by simply buying produce from farms that grow and harvest vegetables within your locality. You wouldn’t need to strictly adhere to a 100-mile diet - even Jen admits that isn’t practical to start - but choosing to buy veggies at the farmer’s market as opposed to the big box grocery, when you can, adds up.

“To raise peoples’ awareness that you can grow so much locally is important. As little as a hundred metres from your house, there could be a community garden growing basic produce. And appreciating the sheer variety of things that can grow in your backyard is great; those vegetables don’t have to be exotic,” Jen adds.

That gratitude best manifests itself, to me, in a newfound knowledge of all the work that goes into growing my organic salad kit. Whether we volunteer our time or support with our purchases, we can become a part of the process - of learning how to live (and eat) sustainably - by becoming gradual stewards of local, seasonal eating. In the city, even that’s not a far-off thing.

Learn more about Cultivate Toronto on their website, or take a minute to search for farmer’s markets near you - you may be surprised by what can grow locally!

Nastasha Alli


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