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The Gulf Islands Diet

Published On: July 30, 2021

Written by Stephania Jean

Have you ever heard of the 100-mile diet? Back in 2005, two Canadians restricted their diet for one year to only foods grown within 100 miles of their home. The resulting book and television show that highlighted their experiences was an inspiration to many budding locavores to try the same thing. 

Here on the islands, you could say that the locals have their own version of that for much longer: The Gulf Islands Diet. There are many beautifully quirky and self-sustaining communities scattered across these shores, and they are passionate about growing and exchanging food.

Eating from the land is a choice and a way of life in this part of the world. There are more “backyard farms” on the islands than you can count, tiny food growing operations in miniature that are meant to sustain one couple or a family. Most folks have some combination of vegetable gardens, orchards, chickens, ducks, and goats. During the right time and circumstance, there can be an abundance of wild blackberries for picking, and opportunities to sample the seas through fishing, oyster harvesting, and the like. These fragile ecosystems are preserved and protected with regulations like those for fishing and shellfish. Locals eat with the seasons and celebrate the arrival of everything from apples to spring lambs with gusto.

Food becomes personal, instead of an anonymous item plucked out of a bin. On island farms, there is the pleasure of pulling fruit methodically off of a tree for a spell, standing on a ladder surrounded by a rustling cathedral of leaves. Or kneeling in the dirt next to rows of lettuce, gently bowing your head to lean down to pluck some for that afternoon’s salad. The communion of placing a sun-warmed berry in your mouth. The garden is akin to a church for some folks here, a place to go daily to worship and care for the land that gives so much sustenance. 

There’s none of the detachment of a typical grocery store experience of grabbing items, checking out, and toting bags home. Here, people are invested in what they grow or raise, and what the other members of these island communities do too. Neighbours share seeds and growing tips, stories of years when there was too much to harvest, and years that there was too little. It’s a beautiful way of life, marked by the ebb and flow of seeds, plant starts, trees, fruits, vegetables, and leaves to be composted. The cycle continues each year, on each farm, backyard, and community garden. 

And for what isn’t grown or produced on-site, it’s easy to fill in the gaps in most communities.  For example, Salt Spring Island and Saturna are known for their lamb, and there are farms like the Ruckle Heritage Farm on Salt Spring that offer lamb, turkeys, and eggs for sale. On Mayne Island, browse the Farm Gate Store for many locally sourced foodie options and The Sea Cuterie Specialty Shop for today’s fresh catch, complete with the name of the fisher and vessel who caught it. Visit the docks to see what the local fishers have brought in as the catch du jour where you might grab a bag of mussels, spot prawn, or halibut in season.

There’s the Salt Spring Saturday Market and Tuesday Market to stock up on not just fruits and veggies but other items like locally made bread, cheese, cider, etc. Their website provides a helpful list of farms where you can buy directly from the local farmers on-island, too. Plus, there’s the option of going foraging at farm stands for the rest of your needs.

While Salt Spring’s Saturday Market might be the most famous, there are other farmers’ markets that shouldn’t be missed. Galiano’s Saturday Market is a destination experience. And both locals and visitors alike can check out the Pender Island Farmers Market that is also on Saturdays. Saturna Island has a small but mighty Saturday Market during the months of July and August, and the Mayne Island Farmers’ Market runs from the May long weekend to Thanksgiving.  

But what about things that the average human doesn’t produce, like coffee, flour…or beer? Many of the islands have a solution for that, with local breweries like Salt Spring Island Ales and the Mayne Island Brewing Company. Both Salt Spring Coffee and Mt. Maxwell Coffee will help keep you in coffee beans. And as for flour, you may have to cheat a little and island hop to Vancouver Island. True Grain mills natural stone-ground organic grain grown in BC in their Cowichan Bay location, and islanders can order it online and have it delivered. 

And because it’s the Gulf Islands, there’s always a story or two about locals taking it to the next level. Pender Island residents Chris Hall and Stef Lowey were inspired during the pandemic to catch, grow, or raise their own food for an entire year, starting in August 2020. Called Lovin off the Land, these dedicated souls have chronicled their challenge of living off the land via YouTube videos and their Facebook page

Are you ready for your own island adventure? Experience the best that local farms have to offer by visiting and supporting them in their mission. Learn how you can preserve and protect this amazing locavore culture by eating authentically from the Gulf Islands.