A sign in Portland's Pearl District

Stereotypes of urban groups are well-known: hipsters, yuppies, DINKs, soccer moms. Writers exaggerate them for comic effect: we’re all familiar with the suburban family (starting way back with Leave it to Beaver), the glamorous single girls (Sex in the City), and the teen misfits (DegrassiGlee). Urban cultures are also contrasted: in Hot in Cleveland, four L.A. women decide to move to Cleveland when the local men show a lot of interest in them. In real life, there’s practically a cultural divide between the urban lifestyles of Toronto and Vancouver, or New York and L.A.

Portland can be characterized as a West Coast city, with its attention to local food, emphasis on physical activity, and enormous variety of independent retailers. You’ve all seen the video clip by now: a couple of hipsters grill a waitress about just how local their chicken is, and are presented with every minute detail of their dinner’s upbringing, habitat size and even its name. The series Portlandia has become somewhat of a cult classic in its portrayal of overzealous hipster culture: it parodies fixi bikes, facial hair, animal protection, and independent bookstores. My first visit to Portland occurred last week, before I’d seen a single episode of the show. So how do Portlanders measure up to their stereotypes?

Many have written about Portland’s devotion to public transit and urban planning initiatives, including the urban growth boundary adopted in 1976. To the tome of articles written on this topic, I have nothing more to add: I also found travelling in Portland quite easy thanks to the streetcar, which extends to the northwest neighbourhood where I was staying, and the MAX LRT lines. I could walk to the Pearl District, home to many independent shops including the legendary Powell’s Books. But I suspect that I got to know Portland in somewhat of a unique way: through food. Specifically, gluten-free food.

Food cart "pod" downtown

Travelling with dietary restrictions can be brutal, especially if we’re talking about allergies or other life-threatening conditions, as opposed to our militant foodies in Portlandia’s pilot episode. Put a couple of these conditions together and it can be really difficult to find anything to nosh: I vividly recall planning a high school camping trip with a vegetarian, a celiac, and a dairy allergic among our party of six. Now, in Vancouver there’s no shortage of restaurants catering to every dietary need (or people with dietary needs). Recently, my husband and I went to a gluten-free dinner at Whole Foods to learn recipes that he can safely eat. There, we met two women who blog on gluten-free restaurants and products in Vancouver (glutenfree-vancouver.blogspot.com). Based on this experience, we decided to search for a similar website on Portland. And there it was: Gluten Free Portland (www.glutenfreeportland.org). Thanks to their restaurant list and Google maps, we were able to find places all over the city that met my husband’s celiac needs: in fact, we wanted to try the restaurants so much that we actually explored neighbourhoods that we probably wouldn’t have, including the Hawthorne District and the Belmont area.

Local winery

The neighbourhoods are Portland, with main streets full of shops, restaurants, and food carts that have more or less become permanent installations: one coffee cart had an attached seating area with stools and a corrugated plastic roof. There were even “pods” of food carts with four or five vendors in a row. We feasted on fried yucca and quinoa-breaded shrimp, drank hazelnut milk, and tasted the local wines. These folks do, indeed, take their food seriously. One restaurant had a cheese menu as extensive than their wine list, mostly sourced from Oregon dairies.

Within 40 minutes of Portland, wineries share the land with hazelnut orchards, grazing horses and alpacas, corn fields, and dairy farms. I doubt that any of this is an accident: the Portland/Multnomah Food Policy Council runs immigrant farmer workshops, completed an inventory of city-owned land available for urban agriculture, awarded Portland State University $125,000 to initiate its Learning Garden Laboratory, and addressed food security in Lents with a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

So is Portland, in fact, Portlandia? Well…yes. At one point, two bearded men in their mid-20s strode towards each other on Belmont, and one said to the other, “Hey man, what it is,” despite the fact that it is not 1971. (My husband and I burst out laughing, as we strode out of yet another gluten-free bakery). The same urban stereotypes can be found in Vancouver, Toronto, London, and Melbourne, but Portlandia writers really know their subject material!

Vancouver’s progressive food security programs have expanded this year, including pocket farmers’ markets and expanded food carts. The result has been more awareness of local foods and more food-related celebration: several vendors were even located in the live viewing areas during the Stanley Cup finals.

Vancouver’s farmers markets are great for trying artisan breads, organic meats and gorgeous mustard greens, but like everything in this city, they’re expensive. This summer, several Neighbourhood Houses in Vancouver have partnered with local food security groups to offer pocket farmers’ markets in areas known as “food deserts”. Trout Lake, south of 12th Avenue between Victoria Drive and Nanaimo Street, is one of these areas. The Trout Lake-Cedar Cottage Food Security Network is a non-profit group that runs pocket markets, community gardens, tasting kitchens, and workshops on how to prepare healthy food. This summer, they partnered with the Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House to establish a year-round pocket farmers market on the third Saturday of each month at Nanaimo SkyTrain station. Interested shoppers buy $1 tokens in advance at the Neighbourhood House, and use them to buy local foods at wholesale prices. TLCC aims to supply local and organic items as much as possible. In May, TLCC expanded their program to partner with the South Vancouver Neighbourhood House: the mobile market will be held at Helping Spirit Lodge (3965 Dumfries Street) and Orchard Park (5988 Nanaimo Street) on the second Saturday of each month, and Brant Villa (2290 East 25th Avenue) and Culloden Court (1375 East 47th Avenue) on the third Saturday of each month.

The Westside Pocket Markets are hosted at Kitsilano Neighbourhood House, (2325 West 7th Avenue) every Thursday from July 7th to September 8th from 3-7pm. These markets are hosted by Society Promoting Environmental Conservation (SPEC BC), who run all sorts of fantastic urban food programs. These markets also have a voucher system, so check out their website for more details.

Another fantastic boost is Vancouver City Council’s recent decision to expand its Mobile Food Vendor program. Last year, a lucky 17 vendors were chosen to pilot the program and have been wildly successful. Vendors are selected on a points system determined by their foodsafe certification, previous street food vending experience, cart readiness, commitment to local, organic and fair trade foods, menu innovations, nutritional content, and waste reduction/green packaging. Council decided to add a further 19 vendors this year; many were profiled in the media, including CTV News (“From tacos to takoyaki”, April 4), the Georgia Straight (“Vancouver’s new food trucks off to a fabulously tasty start,” May 18), and The Globe and Mail (“Vancouver vendors serve up food a la cart”, June 10). Here’s the list of new vendors, and 2 apps to help you find them:

  • Cartel Street Food: Korean tacos, west side of 500 Dunsmuir St.
  • Chawalla: Indian teas, parantha (stuffed Indian flatbread), east side of 800 Howe St.
  • Didi’s Greek: souvlaki, spanakopita, south side of 1700 Robson St.
  • Feastro: tacos, fish and chips, Thurlow Street at West Cordova Street
  • Finest at Sea: seafood, southeast corner of Robson and Hornby streets
  • Gourmet Syndicate: Asian fusion, east side of 900 Burrard St.
  • Kiss Kiss Banh Banh: Vietnamese subs, northwest corner of Howe and Robson streets
  • Mangali: shishkabab, salads, north side of 900 West Georgia St.
  • Mom’s Grilled Cheese Truck: sandwiches and soups, 600 Hornby St.
  • Off the Wagon: tacos, 600 Howe St.
  • Osa Tako Hero: takoyaki (octopus balls), south side of 800 West Pender St.
  • Roaming Dragon 2: comfort foods, east side of 800 Burrard St.
  • Soho Road Naan Kebab: Indian fusion, west side of 900 Howe St.
  • Tacofino Cantina Inc: tacos, burritos, 1800 Morton Sts
  • TBA: souvlaki, north side of 800 Dunsmuir St.
  • The Hut: vegetarian, south side of 1200 Pacific Blvd.
  • The Juice Truck: juice and smoothies, 200 Abbott St.
  • The Re-Up BBQ: barbecue, south side of 800 Robson St.
  • Trailer: Asian barbecue, west side of 1100 Burrard St.


The Food Vendor program will grow by 60 new vendors in the next four years. This year, the City also held a public survey to determine which types of food were in high demand, so check their website to vote next time around. Korean tacos or Asian barbecue, anyone?

Cypress Community Garden

Cypress Community Garden

Municipalities have become increasingly concerned about food security in the past few years. I’ve written before about Vancouver’s Food Policy Council and some of the work they’ve been doing, including encouraging a by-law to allow backyard chickens. Since then some notable developments have happened in the city.

A few weeks ago, Vancouver city council approved five community projects, agreeing to spend $100,000 on the small-scale projects. One aims to help people on social assistance or small fixed incomes can buy coupons at the beginning of each month for a small fee and redeem them later in the month for fresh fruits and vegetables at a mini-farmers market in the neighbourhood. Another funds the development of farmers markets; several Vancouver neighbourhoods worked with city council to streamline fees and fix restrictive zoning bylaws. Council has now approved the development of interim guidelines and zoning changes to develop new farmers markets and expand existing ones, including the very successful Kitsilano, West End, and Trout Lake markets. I visited the West End farmers market this weekend and found the vendors selling seasonal greens, peppers, berries, cheese, fresh lamb and eggs. The prices, as usual for Vancouver, started around the same as supermarket produce and went up from there, but there’s no denying the freshness of the food. I’m still not sure why farmers markets out here are so pricey, when a dollar or two at a market in Ottawa, London, or Toronto will get you a head of broccoli bigger than your own.

There are lots of other ways to get fresh produce in the city. Vancouver has some amazing community gardens, where residents pay a small fee for a garden plot and grow all sorts of fruits, vegetables and flowers. A friend of mine has a plot at the Cypress Community Garden, which cost her $30 for the summer. She goes to garden work parties with the many other gardeners in the area; Kitsilano is full of apartment dwellers who otherwise wouldn’t have the space to grow their own food.

You can also raise chickens and have access to your own fresh eggs daily, since the bylaw was passed to allow backyard chickens. You can check out all these developments on Vancouver’s Food Policy Council website.

The City of Vancouver is one of a growing number of cities concerned about local agriculture and food availability; the City set up a Food Policy Council in 2003. So far, the Council’s interest is confined to homeowners producing their own food (beekeeping and possibly backyard chickens), or producing food for the poor with its Grow-a-Row program. It has not extended its reach to the larger issues: ensuring households have better access to fresh fruits and vegetables (grocery store location) or enabling more local farmers to sell their produce in the city. Another ongoing debate for City of Vancouver planners is whether or not to allow street vendors to operate on busy street corners. While we have the commonplace hotdog/sausage vendors, portable kitchens are not allowed. As Tim Pawsey wrote in the Vancouver Courier, “Zealous health authorities suppress any deviation from predictable food service that might be remotely interesting.”

While Asian cities seem to have the best variety of street food (fresh pakoras in Delhi, sizzling potstickers and skewers of meat in Shanghai), many North American cities offer a variety of quick eats. In New York, there are carts selling pastries, soft pretzels, muffins and bagels; in San Francisco’s Berkeley there’s a giant vending machine with all manner of hot meals available. The City of Richmond is slightly better off than Vancouver, with sizzling meat, Chinese dumpling, and fresh fruit vendors at their weekly Night Market. Hot dog/sausage vendors can always be found at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, but recently Toronto City Hall approved eight new ethnic street food vendors.

Street food has even reached the epitome of high art. The Vitra Design Museum in Basel, fittingly located on Charles-Eames-Strasse and designed by Frank Gehry, is currently hosting a Global Street Food Exhibition featuring all kinds of portable kitchens.

In practice, getting street vendors approved in Canadian cities has proved daunting. Toronto’s process required the vendors to invest $21,000-28,000 for carts and pay an annual location fee of $5,000-15,000. As Vanessa Lu reports in the Toronto Star, a rigorous selection process included scoring for nutrition, food safety, locally produced food, ethnic diversity, taste and an overall business plan. Best of all, the new vendors reflect the city’s diversity: passers-by will be able to choose from Persian, Middle Eastern, Greek, Afghan, Korean, Caribbean, Thai, and Eritrean food at the eight busy downtown locations. This is only a three-year pilot project, but the City of Toronto hints at expanding the program in due time.

While the City of Vancouver still claims health concerns, perhaps Toronto’s pilot project will have some impact on the stodgy minds of the health authorities here.

Vancouver City Council recently directed staff to develop policy guidelines to let city dwellers keep chickens in their backyards, which is probably a thrill for local food aficionados and urban agriculture advocates. The Globe and Mail article tallies up the cost of keeping the birds, including food, scratch, shell and grit, hay, shavings, and startup costs. Their cost comparison between home-grown and store-bought eggs is as follows:

  • 18 cents/egg for a backyard chicken (assuming 270 eggs per year and an annual upkeep of $49.80)
  • 45 cents/egg for SPCA-certified, cage-free and vegetarian fed eggs at Capers
  • 20 cents/egg for medium eggs at Safeway

Victoria and several other municipalities in the Lower Mainland already allow urban chickens. Seattle and Portland also allow the birds, and Seattle even allows miniature goats. The Vancouver policy will be developed with the City’s Food Policy Council, whose other initiatives include encouraging more food-producing gardens, allowing urban beekeeping (apiculture), and the Grow a Row Share a Row program, which encourages households to grow an extra row of vegetables for the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society and Neighbourhood Houses. Other contributors to policy development will be the SPCA, the Humane Society, other municipalities and local health authorities.  

The SPCA and the BC Poultry Association have already raised concerns, arguing that people might not know how to care for the chickens, or that they could spread diseases like avian flu. Of course, the SPCA certifies farms that take good care of their chickens, and the BC Poultry Association obviously advocates the ownership of chickens…just not by Jane Q. Public. Wouldn’t want to disturb the consumption cycle.

The backyard chickens policy, and other urban agriculture policies, have risen to the forefront of the media in the past two years, particularly as food shortages have affected countries like Italy and Mexico. Increased land devoted to growing corn for ethanol, political instability, international trade agreements, and climate change are some of the factors behind food scarcity. In the midst of this revelation, the Vancouver Food Policy Council adopted its Food Charter, which has five principles:

  • Community Economic Development 
  • Ecological Health 
  • Social Justice
  • Collaboration and participation
  • Celebration

Its goal is to get consumers to purchase more locally produced food, regional farmers to direct more of their production to local markets, restaurateurs to feature more local, sustainable food on menus, food retailers to shift more of their inventory to local and sustainably produced food, increased levels of “edible gardening” in the City of Vancouver, and enhanced backyard and neighbourhood level composting and recovery of edible food. Provided that human and bird health concerns are addressed, the backyard chickens policy seems like a good way to ensure residents have access to fresh, affordable food.