I’m amid another of my epic “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Edmonton” road trips. And over the years, I’ve learned that it’s not just armies, but film crews and screenwriters that travel on their stomachs.
But while we live in a nation of plenty with an immense diversity in local produce and culinary selection, our highways seldom lead to anywhere other than tasteless, high-fat, high sodium burgers and dried out chicken fingers.
Oh, you can always find a farmer’s market, a grocery store with a deli section or a diner serving delicious home-cooked meals. But they’re all either far down some side street, plunked on a service road you can’t get to or hidden away in a town you don’t know.
Why is it that every major gas station or highway egress in Canada only hosts a major fast food chain?
Travellers in a hurry to reach their destinations seldom stop more often than they must. And when they do, it’s usually by pulling into a place where they can get gas, relieve bladders and find some sustenance at the same locale.
When I was a kid, that was usually your friendly Esso dealer, which contributed to its “Happy Motoring” motto by offering full service pumps, clean washrooms and a Voyageur restaurant with steeple point roof and Courieres du Bois canoe.
Back then, I stuck to a strict diet of grilled cheese sandwiches and strawberry milkshakes. But I’m told these places featured meals that reflected local delicacies from Alberta Rainbow trout to Quebec Poutine – all lovingly prepared by local chefs.
You can still find a few in towns where the main road used to run. On the current route, however, they’ve been replaced by concourses where you can find magazines, DVDs and sunglasses, but little food-wise beyond a burger and fries.
Now I like digging into a juicy burger as much as the next guy -- maybe more. But when you’re on the road for days at a time, you begin to wonder why this is our only option – especially at the same time our governments have become obsessed with the problems of high salt, high fat diets and Obesity.
Which momentarily brings me back to Edmonton.
A couple of weeks ago, Alberta’s Health Minister announced a $16 Million plan to reduce obesity. It made me wonder why governments just don’t do one thing to address the problem that wouldn’t cost them a dime.
You see, they own all of our roads and (for quite handsome fees) lease the locations where Shell and Esso and Petro-Canada build their franchises, subletting the adjoining space to MacDonald's, Burger King, A&W or Subway.
How hard would it be – instead of spending taxpayer money on new obesity programs – to simply require anybody who wanted to pump gas at the roadside to offer a healthy dietary alternative that might make an even bigger dent in the problem?
Does anybody really think truckers wouldn’t pull in for a nice Pho or mom wouldn’t rather the kids shared a spring roll than a meal that comes with a toy?
I’m not saying you have to kick all those high-school kids flipping burgers at minimum wage to the curb for some guy making bean sprout sandwiches. Just…
Give people the option.
For my sins, I’m a huge fan of The Food Network’s Guy Fieri, especially his current show “Drive-ins, Diners & Dives”.
Now, most of the hash slung on that program wouldn’t fall into any optimum healthy eating category. But a chunk of it does. And it certainly beats chicken fingers in anybody’s taste test. Which brings up something else governments could do for the weary, waistline challenged traveller.
While most of the locations Fieri visits are run by certified Chefs, more than a few are operated by guys with little more going for them than a love of cooking and some of mom’s recipes.
So, If every gas bar along Highway #1 in this country had to offer a burger alternative, can you imagine how many new local businesses might be created?
Businesses which might one day evolve into nation-wide franchises themselves.
And they wouldn’t need much more than the space to park a used shipping container, just like one of the best seafood restaurants on the planet, Victoria BC’s “Red Fish, Blue fish”.
So, we have proverbial “two birds with one stone” potential here. Increased employment and obesity reduction – without having to build a single additional tier of government spending or a whole new Public bureaucracy in the process.
As a side note -- Fieri owns a few legitimate restaurants. Check out the menu of this place and tell me it wouldn’t have you swerving off the road for a taste.
Which brings to mind another of my Food Network heroes, Jamie Oliver. Oliver has spent the last few years igniting food “Revolutions” on both sides of the Atlantic, changing school menus, steering entire cities toward healthier eating, etc.
Can you imagine how much positive PR some multi-national fossil fuel dispenser could acquire if it simply propped his apple-cheeked visage next to their roadside logo promising a nutritious menu to offset the carbon footprint?
I mean, is there anybody who better embodies that “Think of the Children” mindset?
I realize that most governments have to prove they’re keeping busy by creating programs that throw money at a problem. But this is something we could do with little more than the stroke of a pen.
Decent, tasty food that’s also good for you from coast to coast to coast. More than my own burger clogged arteries would thank those with the foresight to make it happen.