In April of 2012, the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association proclaimed “local” as the hottest menu trend for the third year in a row in its annual Canadian Chef Survey. Vancouverites, like those in many other cities, have been embracing elements of the locavore movement, integrating new buying habits and developing a voracious appetite for local foods. From foraged edibles to urban gardens to Fraser Valley–farmed fare, the geographic proximity of where ingredients come from has captured the attention of our collective taste buds. In tune with our culinary desires, local farmers, chefs, entrepreneurs, visionaries, and non-profits are churning out innovative mediums for us to get engaged and eat local. With winter afoot and fall’s bounty behind us, it’s worth a look back at our history of eating local.
Vancouver is a young city, but the idea of a public market has been popular almost from the very beginning. People were keen to buy directly from local producers, and so in 1907, city council made a historic investment into a two-storey civic market. Built on the edge of False Creek on Main Street near what is now occupied by Vancity and the Telus World of Science, the Victorian-style exhibition hall boasted both waterfront access for steamships and terminus connections for rail. The City Market, as it was dubbed, launched to great fanfare in 1908, attracting 3,000 people on opening day. But it ultimately shuttered its doors, first because of its poor location in an undeveloped part of town and then permanently due to a catastrophic fire in 1925. Ultimately, the market should have been at the site that had originally received endorsements from city folk, the business community, and the Vancouver Board of Trade: a place closer to downtown and the Burrard Inlet, off Gore Street. On the subject, historians Fred Thirkell and Bob Scullion wrote in Postcards from the Past (1996): “The remote site chosen on the south side of False Creek, by the penny-wise-and-pound-foolish men of city council, doomed it to failure from the beginning.”
Although Vancouver’s City Market of 1908 was just a flash in the pan, a recent initiative hopes to have a more permanent presence. The New City Market envisions the establishment of a permanent year-round market in the burgeoning False Creek Flats. Originally conceived in 2006, the project was developed by the Local Food First steering committee, which included a number of organizations working collaboratively to scale up the capacity of our local food sector. The New City Market aims to act as local food incubator, offering product aggregation, shared processing space, and short-term cold storage capacity. The goal is to expand and more efficiently direct market the offerings of small local farmers and food producers to eager consumers, restaurants, and other food purveyors. “We see the impact as a positive one that complements and enhances Vancouver’s existing neighbourhood farmers markets by offering additional local food infrastructure that will help small producers and processors start up, stay in, and scale up their businesses,” explains Tara McDonald, executive director of the Vancouver Farmers Markets and the project lead of the New City Market. A draft of the plan was posted online last year, and crowd-sourced feedback from the public along with hundreds of key food-sector stakeholders, the City of Vancouver, and a third-party review are currently being compiled to form a final business plan. All eyes are on the project with hope that it will inspire a new wave of enthusiasm, entrepreneurship, and innovation around local food.
Vancouver Farmers Markets have now been on the ground for 17 years, and no season is complete without a trip to Trout Lake on a Saturday or Kitsilano on a Sunday to explore the satiating harvest from regional producers. Heirloom tomatoes. Veggie pâté. SOLEfood kale. Entrepreneurial farmers and artisans serve up an incredible array of fresh ingredients to make anyone’s mouth water. Now coming into its own, the Winter Market first filled the WISE Hall on Victoria Drive in 2006 and currently populates Nat Bailey Stadium with staple produce and unique treats. “Over the years, the steady growth of our farmers markets reflects the strong and increasing demand for locally produced foods, and it has come despite the fact that they operate in outdoor, temporary environments, without access to water, power, or any type of supportive infrastructure,” McDonald says.
High-tech, low-tech, and no-tech solutions have been pioneered in the city to accommodate the ferocious new demand placed on our local food systems. Vancouver-based Alterrus began construction of their innovative VertiCrop system atop a formerly barren parking lot. The company has nearly completed its construction of a 5,700-square-foot greenhouse in the downtown core, where it plans to grow salad greens and herbs with its patented growing system, which was selected in 2009 by TIME magazine as one of the World’s Greatest Inventions.
Another example, Living Produce Aisle, which opened this past October, is taking a hydroponic turn on urban produce production by growing leafy greens right in the heart of Gastown. By supplying part of their haul to neighbours Nicli Antica Pizzeria and Vicino Pastaria & Deli and integrating a micro-grocery with smoothies, spouts, herbs, wheat-grass shots, and salads, the founders are aiming to wrap a sustainable business model around their scrappy start-up.
Vancouver has hosted a globally recognized local food scene for many years now. It’s no surprise to see that the most acclaimed kitchens and sought-after chefs in the city are delivering locally inspired menu selections in staggering numbers. Highly anticipated restaurant openings featuring locavore fare include the Acorn on Main Street; Gastown’s sharpest new entry, Wildebeest; and Fable over on West 4th, which was opened this year by Top Chef Canada finalist Trevor Bird. Home to the 100-Mile Diet and boasting the bountiful Agricultural Land Reserve within the Metro Vancouver region, B.C. can proudly claim part of the mantle attributed to this North American movement and the capacity to deliver incredible local food. This now-public dialogue has helped recalibrate our views around what we eat in inspiring and culturally significant ways that are positively affecting our health, local economy, and food security. Needless to say, the local food movement is here to stay in Vancouver. It’s important that the next year not simply be the fourth year of a taste trend, but also, more importantly, prove to be a catalyst of our progress and civic engagement to date. Now is the time to ingrain our passion and competitive edge around local food into our way of life for the benefit of generations to come.
Photo: Philip Timms, Vancouver Public Library 7435.