It appears the Local Food Act is back on the table and could be passed by the end of this Fall. The purpose of the Act is to do some pretty neat things:
- foster successful and resilient local food economies and systems throughout Ontario;
- increase awareness of local food in Ontario, including the diversity of local food; and,
- encourage the development of new markets for local food.
The focus is on expanding local food... bringing more to market, specifically through more marketing, and by the setting of goals or targets by the Minister of Food & Agriculture “with respect to” local food (assume they mean amount purchasing) at public institutions – ministries, schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, municipalities, long-term care homes.
For a potentially groundbreaking Act on food, that isn’t very meaty. It also doesn’t address food access or sustainable agriculture, and doesn’t properly do what's within the government's power to help spur new jobs.
We’ve been asking, with hundreds of Torontonians and Ontarians, for the Local Food Act to be improved to create good jobs. The Government of Ontario shares the priority of job creation. This Fall, ministers have all been tasked with looking at their programs through a “jobs lens”, which is exactly what we proposed to improve the Local Food Act. We petitioned to do this by several means.
Our proposals were brought up positively multiple times in the Legislature by MPPs in initial debate on the Act. Sustain Ontario, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, and many others have also been calling for the Act to do more good. The opposition parties are also calling for more, and the government has expressed openness to these ideas. The NDP priorities for the Act have been stated – they’re great. So are the PC’s – they will be proposing amendments as well at Committee debate which could happen quitesoon.
In addition, the Government has launched the Local Food Fund, with ten million dollars per year that groups and businesses can apply to in order to support and improve local food all across the sector. The Fund is broad, exciting and could spark some really interesting work. The government has clearly listened in the creation of this Fund.
As political winds align to get the Local Food Act back on the agenda in the next month, let’s build on the success to further strengthen this Act so it works to address a more prosperous local, healthy, equitable food system.
In a letter to Food Forward before being elected, Premier Wynne promised just that - a strengthened Local Food Act that would "production, processing, distribution, sales and marketing of Ontario food”, as well as to “Streamline regulations that impact the Agri-food industry...and develop a single window information approach to government.
- Support entrepreneurs by conducting a review of small business regulations and creating a single window approach to ensure that small-scale food and farm enterprises have a level playing field and fair chance. Innovative entrepreneurs people in the City as well as farm country are having a tough time even finding out about regulations to meet, as they're busy trying to improve the food system.
- Create more local food jobs by mandating the creation of goals and targets to be set and defined, and put in place more support for institutions to meet them. Current language of the Act means it is up to the Minister of the day to create targets if they wish.
- Increase healthy food access by allowing farmers to receive tax credits for donating to food banks, and also to other community food programs including community kitchens, meal drop-ins, and active living programs for children and seniors. Food banks, community health and food centres, and grassroots programs are all in need for various programs, especially as the model of food banks evolve and the government improves social assistance.
The Committee on Social Policy will be hearing your voices on the Act. Please contact these MPPs to ask that such amendments be enacted.
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- Vivian Ngai
The importance of buying local food and the demand for it is growing, yet how financially sustainable is the sector for those who are working so hard to push it forward?
Earlier this summer, Food Forward hosted a Town Hall Local Food Challenge to open the dialogue with a panel of speakers who shared their experiences with running small to medium local food enterprises. Moderated by Vanessa Ling Yu, Founder of FoodSpokes, the panel explored the challenges and barriers that the local food sector faces as well as possible solutions that can help foster growth and financial viability. The panel included: Lesia Kohut, Eco-Pastry Chef/Social Entrepreneur of LPK's Culinary Groove; Don Mills, Family farmer/President of Local Food Plus; Ann Barnes, Co-Founder of Mum’s Original Superfoods; Len Senater, Owner of The Depanneur; and Amy Cheng, Farmer/Owner of Red Pocket Farms.
It didn’t take long into the introductions to see
the panelists’ unwavering dedication of extending their personal values, integrity and principles into their businesses despite the numerous hurdles and challenges that existed. Lesia recounted her experience of the starting, building and the eventual heart-breaking decision to close her storefront just a few months ago.
But was it inevitable? The panelists all spoke of how existing policies have presented challenges in one way or another for them.
Barriers and challenges
Systemic barriers arise from regulations and legislation that are heavily influenced by or designed for large-scale businesses. It gives them an advantage over smaller operations. While Len’s mission is to innovate and re-define the food connection model, he has found that The Depannear is constantly struggling to exist as more of his time is spent dealing with regulatory challenges than being able to work on and grow his business. His goal was to create a space to bring grassroots projects out from under the radar, but the irony is that various licensing regulations are punishing his efforts to “legitimize” these projects in a commercial kitchen space.
Ann commented that the system pushes against those who do good food work down because it is financially prohibitive. Up-front costs are a big challenge on small budgets, making it difficult to attract farmers and suppliers to enter and stay in the good food sector. From the city, Amy mentioned that the regulations surrounding urban agriculture are often hard to navigate.
Alternatively, Don spoke about commodity agricultural policies where the government subsidizes specific crops. Because this is where the money is, the majority of farmers are here, too. This results in a perpetuation of an over-abundance of cheap monocrop grains and a lack of healthy produce. Price largely determines being able to make good food happen, but in competition with large businesses, it is hard to compete. It is also hard to compete with the “big guys” because of a broader lack of information amongst consumers in the mainstream caused by barriers in education and information.
Ann spoke about the frustrations with the inevitable comparisons made by consumers of competitors that may take advantage of the lack of cohesion/regulation in relation to health and environmental labels and claims. Even the term “local food” has no hard, universally-accepted definition. It varies according to who you ask. This broad misinformation stems from corporate advertising; food literacy left out of school curriculums; small businesses not having the financial resources to put our strong media and advertising campaigns; and a lack of media and information materials aimed towards other cultures or language groups.
Existing policies seem to present numerous barriers for financially sustainable small food enterprises, but the panel also discussed possible solutions to this. Collaboration at all levels and groups of stakeholders, as well as building wider consumer awareness was the theme. Len felt there needs to be an alternative to the current top-down model. Smaller businesses/enterprises should have less regulation, while bigger ones should have more. He felt that if the government eased up on regulations and allowed grassroots organizations to grow, good food would thrive. For example, making it easier to navigate urban agriculture regulations, or creating incentives to do local food. He believes large and small enterprises should not be treated the same with regulations, because they are not, with different scales facing different issues and consequences with different resources. We need a level playing field. In order to make these changes, it would be imperative for more conversation to happen between policymakers and good food producers.
Touch points need to be created to foster communication and understanding. Ann comments that in North America, we’re comfortable with the government taking the reins setting regulatory parameters, but that there is a need to move much of the power away from the government and back into the hands of the community. This is a call to create more organizations that can help foster this initiative (like Sustain Ontario or Local Food Plus). There is also a need for collaboration at the community and individual levels.
A scale-up model would create opportunities to pool resources and knowledge together. Creating a strong network amongst local good food enterprises allow for sharing or dialogue of, for example, better small business management strategies specific to this sector. Pooled resources can also help to build education and awareness with customers more widely on issues relating to the importance of local and sustainable foods. The hope is that this will help alleviate some of the barriers that the panelists experience by creating more demand for good food.
The next steps lie at the top and at the bottom – food policies and regulations that put small food businesses at a disadvantage with large businesses need to be changed, and existing small enterprises and organizations need to start working together to support and build up awareness and education around the good food movement that is easy for consumers to understand.
It’s a shame to see stores like LPK and many others, closing whose final downfall was perhaps the very thing that kept Lesia going – a very strong commitment to doing right. It would be more than a shame to continue to let it happen to others by not moving forward with instigating change in the local food system, to make it a viable choice in every way for entrepreneurs and eaters.
Thank you to the Metcalf Foundation for their support in hosting this important dialogue, and to sponsors Local Food Plus, Sustain Ontario, and FoodSpokes.
Note: Food Forward will continue to work with our partners and member to advocate change, and is using these themes to continue our work training and bringing together entrepreneurs under Jobstarter and caterToronto (see Project tab above), in advocating for changing street food laws, and working to make the Local Food Act and other provincial regulations work for small food businesses.
Food Forward extends its heartfelt condolences on behalf of our members and Torontonians on the loss of the St. Jacobs Farmers' Market to fire last evening.
We understand the cultural and economic imapct this has on the community, and more broadly to Southern Ontario's food and farming community. More presently, we share the sadness from the loss of treasured spaces and family businesses.
So many of us here have strong connections with the Market and its people. Those who haven't visited know what it would mean to lose a St. Lawrence Market (which did also burn down when this was a small community). We would like to offer any support we can provide as an organization and as Torontonians in dealing with the near and longer-term circumstances.
Most immediately, we encourage the public to attend and support vendors at the outdoor market and Peddlar's Village building this Thursday and Saturday.
Please follow the Market's Facebook page for updates on supporting vendor products.
We have had shrinking local food infrastructure and this largest year-long market will need replacement of whatever sort that works best for the community. We hope that residents, farm and urban communities, and governments will work closely to build back and build stronger for a vibrant sustainable food economy.
Feel free to contact us for any support: email@example.com