Okanagan Food Hub

In a time of supply chain interruptions and rising transport costs, this network of resilient local food systems models a highly relevant alternative

by (©) Dianne Bersea

Refillable, recyclable bulk household products

Refillable, recyclable bulk household products from lower mainland, one of the few products not sourced locally from South Central BC. Photo Dianne Bersea

Supply chain interruptions have left me feeling jittery. Will I be able to find what I need? Could the corporate agricultural system, operating on a fragile three-day “just-in-time” schedule, be crushed by unexpected natural calamities or social unrest?

We now have our answer. Panicky shoppers stripped grocery store shelves bare within hours of seriously reduced access due to last November’s storms and landslides.

Throughout, food access advocate Thomas Tumbach was a busy man. Thanks to Thomas and his family there were, and are, food options for times like this. Their enterprises support and enhance food sustainability in South Central BC with a laser focus on the Okanagan Valley.

When I pitched this article idea to the Watershed Sentinel, the imperative of the Food Hub movement came up: to help local food producers remain sustainable with added value and resilience.

One visit to Penticton’s LocalMotive food store made me a fan of the concept. Every stage, from seed to sale, is carefully crafted to be grown, sourced, stored, packaged, transported, waste-managed, and sold with sustainability in mind.

A chance conversation with Jennifer Vincent, co-creator and co-owner of Cowork Penticton, my studio location, introduced me to another aspect of the story. When I mentioned the challenge of catching up with Thomas, Jennifer laughed. “I worked with Thomas for a few years on the Farm Bag Fundraiser. He’s always got a lot on the go.”

Farm Bag Fundraiser? Jennifer enlightens me. “It ran for three years. Good, farm fresh food for school families. Thomas did the food co-ordination and buying from farms up and down the valley. We raised $40,000 for School projects and lunches with up to fourteen schools in the program.”

Food access

For Thomas, getting involved with food accessibility began in 2005 with a Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. On a pre-arranged schedule, the CSA team continues to source, pack and deliver boxes of farm fresh food directly to addresses from Westbank to Osoyoos.

These days, Thomas and family have expanded the food accessibility and sustainability concept to their LocalMotive retail outlet. “We call it the farmer’s market that’s open six days a week,” says family friend and enthusiastic employee Shannon Marfleet.

Dedicated food procurement skills are what it’s all about – finding, connecting, and creating opportunities for up to 150 Okanagan Valley producers to survive in the demanding world of small scale agriculture, while supplying shoppers with dairy products from Salmon Arm, honey from Penticton hives, eggs from Armstrong, lavender scented salves from Naramata. Almost 90% arrives from within the magic “hundred mile” radius (or 160 kilometre in metric terms).

“We’ve established a stable network of suppliers for everything from asparagus to…” Thomas sweeps his arm over a multicoloured squash display. The biggest challenges? “Changing peoples’ minds about local food, and… keeping it all going.”

The Tumbach’s own Garnet Hollow Farm near Summerland provides main root crops and a wide variety of other products such as celery, strawberries and rhubarb. Two greenhouses and a couple of hoop tunnels accommodate and extend the growing season for tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and zucchini.

“As we go into our seventh season at our Garnet Hollow location, experimentation is a constant… soil improvements, anything that can produce a better, healthier crop. Anything to move high quality food more efficiently with reduced climate impact.”

A grain farm family background and a degree in Land and Food Systems created a growing awareness of how we have deconstructed a fundamental connection to our food. That led Thomas to a “deep desire to leave academics behind [and] do something practical, rooted and connected to this place.”

“It was a heads up for me when I noticed an absence of organic food distribution available on a year round basis. I knew I needed to get some good Okanagan soil on my hands.” Thomas is clear, “I want my food to have a connection to this land, where food producers provide for their neighbours and neighbours appreciate healthy, local food.”

Food Hub sustainability map

Food Hub sustainability map – Although a small percentage is sourced beyond the Okanagan, the balance is “home grown” within a few hours’ drive of Penticton hub and LocalMotion. © Illustration by Dianne Bersea

Local food, low-waste

Local food has become a family endeavour. Among the store shelves of colourful canned and locally sourced pickles, salsas, and fruit, I was pleased to encounter Thomas’s wife Celina Tumbach. She cheerily revealed another component of this farm-to-table commitment. “Did you know our daughters had a big role to play? It’s true. Thomas always wanted a store to make good food available to everyone. But our daughters wanted even more. They’re responsible for the Low-Waste concept. They insisted on it.”

Low-waste is a major positive here. Even the little bags of my favourite treat, fruit dried in Okanagan Falls, are enclosed in compostable plastic, while a fully recyclable system for household cleaners and personal body care products solves bigger challenges. Thanks to these inventive folks, most of my household cleaning supplies, yogurt, and milk containers have been swapped out for refillable jars and bottles, some with long lasting and highly recyclable aluminum dispensers.

Low-waste also applies to food products that can be re-purposed or processed for a vigorous new life beyond shelf life, with meaningful added value. As Thomas points out, “Milk is sold to us by the case … often more than we can realistically sell. Now we make yogurt from the excess.” I can attest to yogurt made fresh, sold in recyclable glass jars. Value-added indeed, and only a short commute from farm to my breakfast table.

A key component to the market is an adjoining commercial kitchen where culinary magic-makers Tricia Ryan and Tessie Murdock prepped lunchtime wraps in tortillas sourced from a local specialty baker located just blocks away in a repurposed fruit cannery.

That’s added value, visual appeal and taste options from a cornucopia of essentially ”homemade” jams, preserves, relishes, hummus, sauces, and microbiome percolators like sauerkraut and kimchi. Add to that fresh or frozen soups, pies, and pizza – admirable and delicious achievements I’d be hard-pressed to replicate at home.

So who’s the canning expert and who is the pie-baker who can handle spelt flour with ease? There’s a burst of laughter. “Pies are often me,” Tessie claims, “but overall it’s a collaborative effort. We share responsibility.”

Tricia adds, “We can supply things people can’t, or don’t have time for at home.” They both want me to know that low-waste is a major kitchen objective. “All our kitchen waste is composted and goes back to the farms.” Good organic compost is agricultural gold.

I love shopping where even the staff is excited to be part of a process they themselves support and practice. Being treated as valued employees helps too. Thomas assures me, “They have a living wage.”

Newly appointed Assistant Manager Kelly Redgrove confirms, “I love working here, and customers love the store. We hear that daily. That’s a new perspective for me. I’ve worked in corporate retail for most of my life. But this feels like family. There’s an intimate connection. As Thomas always asks, ’Who’s your farmer?’ I know mine.”

Meanwhile, the Tumbach daughters are also busy. Rosemary assembles her own line of dried herb teas, pleasingly presented in glass jars. Amelia has an artistic eye for displays and I’ve also seen her briskly tossing a multi-ingredient salad for the lunch cooler. Eliza is into edible flowers for restaurant sales, and Frances keeps an eye on the peas and watermelons. Son Tobias, five years old, assesses his options.

A scheduled carrot washing becomes a family event to deliver crisp local carrots, harvested in October, kept in cold storage and sweetly flavoursome into March.

Bottom line, how successful is this idealistic, heartfelt, community-oriented project? “We added a million dollars to the local economy last year. We’ve established a stable network of suppliers for everything from asparagus to…” Thomas sweeps his arm over a multicoloured squash display. The biggest challenges? “Changing peoples’ minds about local food, and… keeping it all going.”

Shannon adds, “In the November landslide crisis, we kept the shelves 90% stocked. Thomas was on the road every day, hitting every community and side road in the valley. When he discovered a new hydroponic lettuce grower, they asked how much he’d take. Thomas said, “Fill the truck!’”

Dianne Bersea is an artist, illustrator, photographer and writer with beginnings in the wild West Coast islands of British Columbia. Currently living in Penticton, Dianne is focusing on sustainability issues, especially food-related.

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