Governments need to work much harder with their support for local food supplies

Ontario Premier Dalton Mc­Guinty is talking the talk when it comes to supporting the grow­ing consumer demand for local food. Now his govern­ment needs to walk the walk.

Encouraging Ontarians to buy locally, as the premier did recently, is a welcome show of support for those trying to establish local food networks. But Ontario needs more. It needs governments actively work­ing to foster systems that bring local food into our kitchens.

The fact is our federal and provincial governments are doing little to nurture the kinds of networks that will sustain healthy local food systems. That has been left to local communities and international organizations.

On April 22, women farm­ers from around the world met in Guelph to develop a local “food sovereignty” strategy that puts the interests of farm­ers and consumers before those of trade. They have been vocal for over a decade and they will present their strategy in Ottawa next week. It is time for Canadian government leaders to listen.

Just as consumers are start­ing to think locally, however, governments are developing trade with distant countries to produce more of the food in our grocery stores. Govern­ment at­tention to GNP and large-scale agri-business has helped secure huge markets, cheap labour, and big profits for industrial food companies. But small fam­ily farms do not profit from that trade.

There are fewer and fewer farmers in Canada, and they are earning less than they earned during the Great Depression. Young people who want to grow food to market locally have few incentives and many obstacles – lack of access to land, training, start up funds, and processing plants.

Sixty years ago, there were over 30 canneries in Prince Edward County alone. Now there is only one in Canada east of the Rocky Mountains – and it is about to close. Since the closing of abattoirs in all our provinces, live hogs are being shipped to the USA for proces­sing.

Canada has abandoned mills, processing plants, distri­bution, and storage facilities and local transportation sys­tems.

Investing abroad, gov­ern­ments have failed to invest in local infrastructure necessary to sustain healthy local food systems.

The infrastructure that was part of Canada’s historic past – where farm villages and towns sprang up and thrived across the country – is broken. And rural areas in Canada that could respond to the rising demand for local food are in desperate need of jobs.

With the rising number of Canadians living in poverty and increasing focus on health issues, many scholars are turning to action-oriented re­search. They are working with community organizations such as the award-winning Opera­tion Sharing, in Oxford County, which is trying to deliver servi­ces in areas where governments have pulled out. Many see local food systems as part of the solution to poverty and health issues as well as to local economies, particularly in rural areas.

Local food policy develop­ment is growing but scattered. In Ontario, Waterloo Region has a healthy communities’ food system plan developed through public health and land use planning departments and community organizations. Lan­ark-Frontenac-Lennox and Ad­dington Counties participate in a Kingston and countryside food system called Food Down the Road, instigated by the National Farmers Union Local 316 and supported partly by the Agricultural Management In­sti­tute and the Agricultural Adaptation Council.

Women farmers make up a significant portion of the small farmers who are investing heav­ily in starting up local food farms, processors, and policy initiatives. It is time to pay at­tention to them.

Strategies for building safe, environmentally-conscious local food systems should be integral to every regional economic develop­ment strategy in Canada.

Governments at all levels can get involved. Munici­pali­ties can provide structures for local markets, or offset taxes and fees for building use; county and regional govern­ments can do as Waterloo Region has done, hosting local food fairs and setting their staff to work on food system plan­ning with their diverse com­munities.

The federal government can do more. It can put in place programs provinces can work with to fund local food farmers. The provinces can follow the steps being taken by Manitoba, with the first province-wide food charter, and by New Bruns­wick, with its com­mit­ment to agricultural self-suffi­ciency and working with resi­dents and farmers in building direct markets locally and regionally, not half way around the globe.

Those markets are Cana­dian. Cana­dian demand for local food is rising, and build­ing local food networks not only puts healthy food in local kitchens, but solves environ­mental and economic problems too. Canadians are trying to build local food networks. They need the governments to provide better tools to make it happen.

Dr. Susan Turner is with the University of Guelph, and   Colleen Ross is the National Farmers’ Union Women’s President. They are members of the research project, Rural Women Making Change.