Go pick up your own orange; it’s only 77,000 kms away!

I don’t know about you but I have a running grocery list on an antique piece of slate in the kitchen. And until I watched An Inconvenient Truth (the Al Gore film about Global Warming) I didn’t think too much about what was on it.

The film made the point that we can reduce gas emissions by simple things like trying to buy food that’s locally produced and locally processed. So at least now I’m looking at the produce signs for “Ontario Grown.”

There’s a class at Central Collegiate that’s way ahead of me… thanks to their teacher Robin Lawrence. Robin teaches a two-credit outdoor ed program where students get one senior science and one phys ed credit during their semester.

She developed an assignment that turned into a real eye opener for herself and her students. They decided to visit major grocery store chains and calculate the number of kilometers that each food item had travelled to get to that grocery store. They chose a generic shopping list that looked something like this: milk, eggs, butter, yogurt, cheese, vegetables, onions, garlic, carrots, celery, fruit, oranges, apples, mango, pineapples, bread, crackers, cereal, meat.

The students did their research by getting to all the grocery stores by bike. And they discovered that in many, many cases, it was impossible to find the place of origin for much of the food we eat. Robin said the major roadblock is the difference between final packaging and labelling in Mississauga for products that originate in China or Japan or South America.

Visiting five grocery chains in Barrie, they used the same list and started logging the kilometers our food travels. Robin said the travel distance often exceed 77000 kms. And, the surprising thing is that many of these products could be purchased right here in Simcoe County in a radius of less than 100 kms.

Obviously oranges weren’t available (though one student found a micro farmer with oranges) but you can substitute apples for oranges, get the same vitamins and buy locally.

They looked at out-of-season vegetables and the exotic fruits that we expect to buy all year round. Students spoke to their parents who did not remember ever eating exotic fruits and vegetables when they were young… they just weren’t available.

Students criteria during the project involved impact on environment, nutritional value, greenhouse gas emissions caused, the difference between processed and unprocessed foods.

“Buying locally has started to become a big issue,” says Robin. The 100-mile diet book, launched in Vancouver last year, has joined programs in Guelph and Waterloo where maps are available so people can truly buy locally.

Robin’s students ended up doing the same thing… they produced a map of products and locations throughout Simcoe County. This map is a great addition to a project that Sandra Trainor, a local community developer, completed last year for farmers in Simcoe County. The Simcoe County Farm Fresh organization is promoting the ‘buy local’ concept. Buying within 100 kms of home helps reduce the kilometers and boosts our local agricultural economy. The Simcoe County Farm Fresh campaign, complete with website, maps out locations across the county so we can truly shop locally.

“Did you eat today? Thank a Farmer!” www.simcoecountyfarmfresh.ca

How were students marked on this project? For participation (by bicycle). For success in finding local product alternatives. For completing the project. For their maps. Robin says awareness of the issues increased tremendously. We both lamented that times have changed so that people no longer preserve their local bounty… pickling, jams, freezing vegetables, preparing local in-season produce for out-of-season consumption… two generations ago this was standard activity in kitchens. Today, freezing vegetables is a skill most young people wouldn’t know about. Dehydrating fruit is a great way to be able to eat in-season year round.

“Shop local” does more than save our environment. It boosts our economy, too. A dollar spent here is a dollar that gets spent again and again as food producers and retailers turn to spend their money locally.

It’s definitely a win-win-win.

Thanks, Robin, for a fabulous school project! Thanks, Sandra, for producing such a useful tool.