Every summer, if I'm lucky, I get to spend some time with my family at our cabin on an island off Canada's West Coast. It's a place we go to recharge our batteries, and reconnect with each other and with the natural world.
Part of that reconnection is with food. Although many of us quickly scarf down whatever's convenient as we rush about our daily lives, eating food is one of the most intimate experiences we can have. The food we eat is broken down by our bodies at a molecular level and absorbed into our cells. It becomes part of us. We quite literally are what we eat.
That's why it disturbs me to see the kind of food many people consume on a daily basis. I admit, I'm guilty of less-healthy choices myself sometimes. I try to be vigilant about food, but I travel a fair bit and it can be hard to find the time to slow down and eat right. People think that being on a TV show is glamorous, but after a long day of filming, my dinner might well consist of a veggie dog from the street vendor outside my hotel before turning in for the night.
When I get to the family cabin, food stops being a mere necessity to provide energy for another hour of shooting. It becomes something to celebrate. Summertime provides us with a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and our oceans can still serve up a veritable feast of shellfish and other seafood. As the Coastal First Nations' saying goes: "When the tide is out, the table is set."
Most Canadians — in fact, the vast majority of us — now live in urban centres where we are often completely removed from the sources of our food. Much of what we buy is pre-packaged, frozen, chopped-and-formed, or otherwise processed before we even pick it up from the nearest warehouse club store. Yet there's something truly special about digging up your own clams and mussels for dinner. Or catching a fish for breakfast. Or picking your own fruits and vegetables. Not only is the food fresh, the experience makes it taste better and feel more satisfying.
For the past 27 years, part of my family's summer ritual is to go cherry picking because I wanted my children to celebrate food's seasonality. We stuff ourselves silly with the juicy red fruits and bring back pallets of cherries to share with friends. It's actually pretty hard work. But that's part of the fun and the satisfaction. You can't buy that experience from a big-box store.
In fact, it drives me nuts to go into a supermarket in the summer and see it loaded with imported fruits and vegetables when local gardens and farms are overflowing with food. Farmer's markets are where I prefer to get my produce in the summer, when local farmers and some industrious city gardeners make their harvests available directly to the rest of us.
There are plenty of reasons to support farmer's markets and local food, besides the experience. Eating locally grown food helps reduce the pollution caused through transportation. Apples from New Zealand, for example, are a pet peeve of mine. Many local farms often also have organic certification, which is less intensive and more sustainable in the long term — and organic produce is grown without using chemical pesticides.
Some proponents of organic food also say that it's better for you, although the research is inconclusive. One recently completed 10-year study to be published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that levels of certain cancer-fighting antioxidant chemicals were almost twice as high in organic tomatoes as they were in conventionally grown tomatoes. Researchers surmise that the availability of nitrogen in the soil is the reason for the difference. But other studies on wheat and carrots have found little nutritional differences between conventional and organic crops.
Regardless of your reasons for eating locally, summer is a great time to slow down and reconnect with food. Few things are as fundamental to our personal health and well-being. And few things have a bigger impact on the health of the planet either.