Going local in Alberta?

November 15 2018

There is a lot to be said for sourcing food locally; there is the environmental aspect, as fewer 'food miles' means less fuel burned to get it from farm to fork. 

In addition, there is the economic aspect, with consumers able to support food producers from their own region, adding a sense of trust, ownership and pride in the quality that an area can offer. Finally, there is the freshness involved. What could be nicer than seafood that was swimming in the nearby sea that very morning, or fruit and veg that has only just been harvested? 

All these are reasons that many people like to see their local restaurants, cafes and stores stocking as much local produce as possible. 

CBC News has been reporting on attempts to persuade restaurants and other food providers to make serving local food their chief focus. The results, and the issues at stake, may have implications for every region of Canada. 

The local food movement has certainly gained some converts in and around Edmonton. These include the owners of RGE RD. Their restaurant is founded on the principle, with manager  Caitlin Fulton and chef Blair Lebsack spending years in the industry building relationships with local food producers before opening their own establishment.

Ms Fulton said: "The community came first, then the restaurant. The restaurant has allowed us to maintain and grow that community.

"What it did was allow us to really show our commitment to using local food and let the farmers know that we're here for the long haul," she added. 

This can lead to partnerships where the restaurants are not restricted to what the farmer has produced before, as they can do deals with local producers to grow the food that fits the planned menu. 

"We've seen chefs banding together and working with farmers, saying, 'If you change your crop from what you were doing before to what we're using, we will guarantee you that we will buy your product," Mr Lesback said.

RGE RD is not an isolated case. Mark von Schellwitz, Restaurant Canada's vice-president for the western provinces, told CBC: "It's captured the imagination of not only the chefs, but certainly our customers and millennials in particular, who are really concerned about where their food comes from."

Not everyone sees going local as feasible, of course. Chef Kunal Sawhney at Edmonton's Revel Bistro and Bar said around half his ingredients come from Alberta and three-quarters from Canada, but sourcing everything locally would add too much cost for the restaurant to be able to sustain "value on a plate". 

Besides that, he said, different approaches to local produce versus imported food means more variety, with "something for everyone" in the Edmonton restaurant scene.

Clearly there are other issues. An obvious one is the seasonality of some kinds of food, which may be fine when this is restricted to the 'specials'. But with some flexibility and understanding, it seems many restaurants with a local focus are thriving. 

Indeed, RGE RD has been a real success since it opened in 2013. It was named that year's Best Restaurant and Best New Restaurant in Edmonton by Avenue Magazine, and Best New Restaurant in Edmonton by Where Magazine. Air Canada's enRoute Magazine named it the fourth best new restaurant in the country in 2014 and 48th in Canada's 100 Best Restaurants for 2015.

Evidently, there is much to be said for going local.