"People think food just appears," says Nicole Robins, owner of North Vancouver’s Sprout Organic Market. In actuality, the food we eat is still grown on farms. Much of it comes from far away, shipped from around the world by ships and planes, with attendant problems in freshness, chemical exposure and production practices. One alternative is to eat food that is produced locally.
With the ocean to the west and farmlands to the south and east, Vancouver has many sources of locally produced food. The 2007 bestselling book The 100 Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating was written by Vancouver residents Alisa Dawn Smith and JB MacKinnon, who lived in Kitsilano during their experiment. Today, there are many local stores around the Lower Mainland where you can buy locally made food.
Home on the Range Organics
Address: 235 East Broadway, Vancouver
Opening hours: Monday - Sunday: 11am - 6pm
Home on the Range Organics is a storefront on East Broadway near Main, only a block away from the Buy-Low Foods in Kingsgate Mall. Jackie Ingram, the shop’s co-owner and co-founder, says that it has survived for five years because they're niche.
And the other thing is the customer service. When you come in here, you can ask anyone of my team about the nutritional aspect of their food, even the kitchen staff, and they will know. Whereas the supermarkets aren’t training their staff.
Her shop specializes in locally produced, organic food.
It took off organically; excuse the pun. About five years ago, we realized people really wanted nourishing food and they really didn’t want to be part of this forty-year-old processed food ribbon that we’ve all got stuck in in Europe and over here in North America. People want to return to their roots. They want nourishing food. They want real food, slow food, fermented food. They want it and they’ll pay for it.
The shop’s refrigerators and deli cases are stocked with meat and dairy products, ranging from ground beef and lamb raised in BC to house-made meat pies that contain local meats, to pepperonis and chorizos made by a fifth-generation German sausage maker just on the other side of Broadway. There’s locally made duck and quail eggs, milk, cheese and yoghurt. There’s a kitchen in the back where Jackie and her staff make bone broth, duck liver paté, duck confit, ham hock tureen, sausage rolls, soups, and other goods. Most of this comes from inside BC.
It’s local where we can. And not just certified organic. We’re really looking for animals that eat grass out on pasture. With the chickens, you want the feathers to get wet. It’s hard to find. A lot of work goes into that. Our suppliers that we work very closely with will go and visit the farms and check out the pigs. And when they say, ‘This is exactly what you want, Jackie,’ we’re going to order them in.
Jackie is a strong believer in the benefits of locally produced and organic foods. The customers who shop at her store not only keep their money in BC but enjoy the health benefits of fresher food. Many of her clients are health workers or referred by health workers.
They want healthy food, that hasn’t had to travel and put on a blueprint that says it’s traveled four days on a truck. How fresh can it be? What would you rather, a tomato from a garden or a tomato that’s come from Chile?
This means accepting the imperfections of food that isn’t produced industrially and shipped over long distances.
We’re not trying to say, here’s a strawberry, and it’s going to be this big all year, and it’s going to taste exactly the same. As humans, do we really want that? We don’t.
Home on the Range also carries locally made health and beauty products, and a small amount of imported goods, such as coffee from Venezuela or chocolate from France. This would seem to conflict with the locally produced ethos, but Ingram says this is only five per cent of the store’s profits.
Address: 3958 Main Sreet, Vancouver
Opening hours: Monday - Friday 10am - 8pm, Weekends 9am - 8pm
Founded in September 2015, August Market is a boutique-sized grocery store on Main Street, also specializing in local foods. Its owner and manager, Gogan Shottha, used to work for the Persia Food supermarket chain as a manager, among other jobs.
I bounced around a lot. I didn’t have much direction. I never imagined myself opening up a grocery store until I was doing it. Then there was an overwhelming urge that this is what I needed to do at the point that I did it.
The neat shelves in August are stocked with a full range of products, including meats, produce, grains and packaged foods. Gogan’s priorities are local before organic.
Local first. I would love to support local as much as possible. And then organic if possible. The idea behind the market was really that I wanted to make this very much an experience. I wanted everyone to leave feeling happier than when they came in, from the customer service to the product selection to the price. They didn’t feel guilty about overspending. They got what they were looking for. They felt like they were supporting a local business, that they felt good about.
However, Shottha’s definition of "local" is more about relationships than geography.
I define it as ‘where I am, outwards’. Literally, where I am. It’s not even a matter of national borders, for me personally. I think some people would very much say, ‘Support Canadian before American.’ That’s what I have been doing because getting stuff across the border would be more difficult. When it’s physically closer to you, the logistics of everything makes much more sense in terms of freshness, in terms of quality control, in terms of the connection. You could literally drive there, or travel there, to see where your food is coming from. You could meet these people, you could have a conversation with them.
Some of the products come from as close as urban farms further north, near Main Street. Others come from as far as California or Mexico, or from a mountain farm in the BC interior, which doesn’t even have paved roads. Gogan does his best to visit these farms and see first-hand how the food is produced and delivered.
He had to overcome people’s preconceptions about his specialty store.
When I first opened up the shop, a lot of people would avoid it because it looked like it was ‘bougie’ and expensive. On a window, we put up a sign, ‘Not as expensive as you think.’ That attracted quite a few people to come in. ‘Oh, you have a funny sign, and the prices are reasonable.’
Over the first year, he has put a lot of work into community building, including reaching out to vegetarian and vegan communities and hopes to turn the store’s loft into a community arts space.
I would say I know roughly 80 per cent of the people who come in here’s names. And I have a great opportunity to introduce people to each other,
Sprout Organic Market
Address: 700 E. 7th St., Vancouver
Opening hours: Monday - Friday: 9:30am - 6:30pm, Saturday: 9:30am - 6:00pm, Sunday: 9:30am - 5:30pm
Sprout Organic Market is the only grocery store in a North Vancouver residential neighbourhood. The boutique-sized shop offers a full range of organic and locally produced foods, as well as housewares and health and beauty products.
Nicole Robins, the owner, used to be a banker until she started her family with her husband.
When you start a family, you start becoming acutely aware of what you’re putting into your body, and what you’ll eventually be feeding your children. It set me on a path. That started when I was pregnant with my first child. He ended up having severe food allergies, that really opened my eyes to not only organic food but beyond: supply chains, and where food comes from, and how people touch it.
Nicole took an interest in holistic nutrition, and she and her husband bought Organics at Home, one of the first companies delivering organic food to homes in Vancouver, founded in 1999 by Chris Michael.
Home delivery is a really complicated business model and what I realized was that I far preferred dealing with people face to face. I enjoyed sourcing local products, artisan-made local products. I wanted to expand towards packaged things that are made locally, but also look at more health and beauty products. I wanted to evolve a little bit and use my holistic nutrition training that I had received as well.
Nicole began to open her warehouse one or two days per week, starting in 2009. It became a destination for people interested in organic and local food from all over North Vancouver, and as far away as Richmond and Aldergrove. In 2012, she shut down the delivery business and opened Sprout, a retail market for local and organic foods, in the middle of what would otherwise be a food desert. The closest other food sources are Lonsdale or Park and Tilford.
Certified organic is number one priority at Sprout. We’re a small, locally owned business. It’s one of the only grocery stores in Vancouver that is 100 per cent organic from dairy, from grass-fed meats and chicken, from produce, grocery items.
This includes wild cod and salmon, caught in the Queen Charlotte Islands, processed and flown to Vancouver. Locally produced food is a secondary priority, but an important one.
To have to import our food leaves us vulnerable if there are problems. For example last year, there were problems in California with the drought. That really impacted our ability to get a number of different foods: lettuce, kale, you name it. And it drove the prices up. People are becoming more aware of protecting our food security. They are also more aware that, the further food has to travel, the older it is. You want fresh food because it is more nutritious.
Part of Nicole’s interest in local food stems from the idea that the system that puts food from all over the world on our plates is more vulnerable to disruption than we might think. Local production reduces our dependence on outside forces, whether political or ecological.
The challenges of seasonal availability
There are two perennial problems of locally produced food: the cost relative to supermarkets and other mainstream sources, and the seasonal changes in availability. But all the above retailers say that their price points are comparable to those of mainstream supermarket retailers for organic foods.
Each retailer deals with the problem of seasonal availability in a different way.
August Market just goes further afield for its wares. Gogan says that, for the most part, they just have to switch to foreign sources like California and Mexico.
Jackie says you just have to switch it up
For example, let’s take the milk and the butter. Where the cows have got luscious fresh grass in the end of March, you look at the thickness of the cream, and you look at the colours of the butter. It’s really nice to see that changing, but they’re still producing milk, they’re still making yoghurt and butter. But in winter months it might not be so yellow. Customers don’t mind because it’s real."
Sprout has to compromise in order to serve its customers. Some of the stock is locally produced, and some is shipped in; the proportions vary depending on the season. The store’s website includes charts that indicate the availability of different fruits and vegetables by month.
Because I’m a retail grocery outlet, I can’t offer 100 per cent local produce year round. You will find year round that I have most of the time things from BC. For example, we’re in BC’s fall season right now. I’ve got cabbage. I’ve got potatoes, squashes, garlic. We always have tomatoes and peppers that are local. It’s the greens that I can’t source locally.
Like August Market, Nicole turns to suppliers further afield, such as California and Arizona, and her stock varies with the season.
I would say that I’ve got a good 45 to 50 per cent local right now. It is possible to do local throughout the year. It’s just that at certain periods, I have to trade out. In the summer, it’s all local. All my greens are local.
Meet The Photographer: Ricardo Vacas
Ricardo Vacas, owner of the firm Kerp Photography, always showed intense interest in many forms of creative arts. His professional photography career started in his home country, Spain, where he was the official photographer of several music bands, models and clothing brands. He decided to move to Wellington, New Zealand in 2012, knowing his real interest was fashion photography more than any other field. Currently living in Vancouver, Canada, he now combines his fashion, editorial and commercial photography projects with regular trips to Europe and USA.