How to find local and organic food in the winter

By Teghan Beaudette

bananasFinding local and organic food in Ottawa is typically easy during the summer months—with many outdoor farmers markets, community garden projects and greenhouses. But as the weather changes and we lose daylight hours, finding local and organic food becomes difficult—so where can you go if you want the health, economic and environmental benefits of eating local and organic foods?

Paul Slomp, a coordinator at Just Food, an Ottawa-based not-for-profit that promotes local and organic food, says the best thing to do is divide your needs up into food groups, be realistic about what is in season and contact local farms.

Meat

“If I was looking for local meat, one of the things I would do is phone local farmers directly to see what options they have available,” Slomp said.

Finding local farmers in Ottawa is easier than you’d think. Just Food and the Canadian Organic Growers’ Ottawa chapter both have guides to buying local and organic food—with extensive lists of contact information for farmers who sell food directly to consumers.

Petra Stevenson, the program co-ordinator for Canadian Organic Growers’ Ottawa chapter, maintains the Ottawa Regional Organic Food Directory and has operated an organic farm in the Ottawa area since 1972.

Stevenson advises selecting a farm from the directory and calling or visiting before you buy.

“The best thing to do is go and meet the farmer in person,” said Stevenson. That way you can ask questions about the type of food they have.

But what to ask?

“How old the animals are that they are using for meat, how they live, are they free range, do they live inside and what they are fed?”

“Are they fattened up with grain or are they actually only raised on grass and hay? That is very important. You can have many organic farms that use grain to fatten the animals up—and the meat is not as good,” Stevenson said.

She explained that consuming grain adds hundreds of pounds of unnecessary fat to the animal. And if the animal is older when it is slaughtered, the meat will be tougher.

The most important thing to distinguish is whether or not you’re dealing with local or local organic foods. “If you go for local, you are definitely getting, in general, better produce and meat than if you go to the grocery store,” Stevenson said.

“But you don’t have organic food just by going local. They could give [animals] all sorts of antibiotics and growth hormones or medicated food for younger animals.”

When customers visit Stevenson’s farm she makes a point of showing them exactly how the animals are raised.

“We spend about an hour at least to just walk around with them, show them the animals, talk about the organic meat and how we do it, where the animals live and how we raise them.”

When purchasing meat directly from a farmer, expect it to be frozen, because it’s illegal for them to operate a store front with fresh meat. Stevenson said you shouldn’t expect it not to taste fresh though, as farmers use flash freezing to maintain the quality.

Produce, dairy and eggs

Fresh produce is hard to find in the winter in Ottawa. So realistically you may have to turn to not-so-local—but still organic—alternatives. Slomp recommends the Herb and Spice Shop on Bank Street.

“I would say 80 per cent of our store is organic and the rest would be natural (no preservatives) and we try to keep everything as Canadian as possible,” said Roxanne Donnelly, the manager of the Herb and Spice Shop.

Gerard Labelle, the store’s produce manager, said that most of their fruits and vegetables come from two Canadian distributors—but while it is organic, not everything is local during the winter.

“There’s really not that much available in the dead middle of winter, so most of the stuff comes in from the States.”

Slomp highly recommends you ask questions.

“It’s very important for people to find out more about their food and the best way to do that is to ask questions at the place where they get it.”

Stevenson, though, reminds consumers to have reasonable expectations of their local food market or farmer.

“[People should] get a little bit more accustomed with what grows when and where,” she recommends. “Not go to the market and be disappointed with what’s there.”

Hartwells has also published an overview of Ottawa-centric food websites.

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