On a kayak trip along the Nam Tha River in northern Laos, my fellow paddlers and I stopped for a supper graciously prepared by Khmu villagers who live along the river’s banks.
As women in robes pounded rice in a vat with wooden poles, pigs, chickens and ducks swarmed their feet, trying to scavenge any spilled grains.
A man walked past carrying a live duck, disappeared, then reappeared a few minutes later: The duck was dead, its body swinging limply in his hands.
“Oh, that’s so gross,” said a female traveler from Calgary.
“No,” I said, “that’s dinner.”
Lugging a backpack through Laos and other Asian countries taught me that food not only comes from the land, but also from a land’s culture.
Like the Khmu villagers, many Asian countries are still connected to the land and to their food: They grow rice and vegetables, raise pigs and chickens, or buy their rice, veggies and meat from local farmers in sprawling outdoor markets.
They don’t say “gross” when they see a dead duck, either.
Things are different here.
Our affluence somehow convinces us to hinge our most basic needs to unsustainable ways.
Think of the distance you have from food, both abstractly and physically. Take that Florida orange you had for breakfast, that Thailand pineapple garnishing your Albertan ham and PEI potatoes, or the sugar from Haiti and coffee from Indonesia inside your daily cup of Tim Hortons brew.
Or, watch your friends eat meat, yet shudder at the sight of blood.
Our food usually has more kilometres under its belt than calories. According to World Watch, ingredients in a typical American meal travel an average of 2,500 to 4,000 kilometres before appearing — like magic! — on a plate.
Canadian meals travel similar distances; the typical Yukon meal probably travels all of that, and then some.
Ruth Lera, a co-ordinator with Growers of Organic Food Yukon, wants to change that.
On Wednesday, Lera threw a barbecue at the BYTE office in Whitehorse, to feed and teach young people about their food.
It was called “Food from the Yukon, for the Yukon.”
“I want to talk about where our food is coming from in the world,” said Lera. “Is there any of this that we could be growing locally?”
The answer, of course, is yes.
At the barbecue, locally made beef sausages and donated moose-meat burgers were served.
Everything else on peoples’ plates, from condiments to nacho chips to cheese, came from the supermarket — and thus somewhere far, far away.
That allowed Lera to get people thinking.
Where’s that tomato from, she asked?
Where’s the flour used to make the bun from?
“I don’t know … Alberta?”
Lera taped a map to a door and stuck arrows on countries where food had come from.
Even in Whitehorse, as evidenced by Lera’s map, the world is our oyster.
So, what can be done to curb our wastefulness?
Lera gave youth a handout that suggests they buy more local products, read labels closely, and even plant a garden.
A few people at the barbecue bragged that they had a garden or a greenhouse to grow their own veggies. Yes, even north of 60, veggies will grow.
But what really needs to change is our culture. The next time you’re in Vancouver, pick up an apple at a supermarket and marvel that it’s from New Zealand, not the Okanagan Valley less than 300 kilometres away.
The next time you’re at the supermarket in Whitehorse, try to find anything locally grown and produced.
If you can, buy it.
If you can’t, find out why and demand that you have access to our own produce.
The only way a culture changes is when its people change.
Some have gone so far as to adhere to something called the “100-mile diet,” only eating food harvested within 100 miles of home — difficult in the Yukon, but you get the drift.
Lera will be holding a kids day at the Fireweed Market in Whitehorse on Thursday, from 3 to 8 p.m. to continue teaching people about their food.
“I’ll be using the McDonald’s method,” she said. “The parents will be bringing their kids, so I’ll be able to speak to the parents, too.”