Food Forward is encouraging you to participate in a great new project around hospital food. (See some of our past work on hospital food in our blogs).
The University Health Network (UHN) in Toronto is looking to the wisdom of the crowd for ideas on how to better connect local Ontario food to their hospitals. The Department of Energy & Environment, a member of Sustain Ontario, has partnered with Nutrition Services to launch a new idea crowdsourcing project, “Talkin’ Local Food with UHN,” to enable a wide conversation among the UHN community – patients, staff, visitors, and the broader public – about refreshing the hospitals’ food services and culture with a local and sustainable focus.
Three challenges have been posted on the platform to guide the conversation. These questions are designed to tap into the experience of patients, staff and creative thinkers to hear their ideas that may otherwise stop at a lunch hour chat. From a UHN blog post:
- “What are your soothing foods when sick or injured? One of the challenges of serving food in Toronto hospital is the extreme diversity of food preferences and needs. Share your stories about your soothing food. Read more“
- “How might we change the way staff think of food in patient care? This is a biggie. We want to hear what it would take to raise the profile of hospital food, develop a food culture and help food be seen as part of recovery. Read more“
- “How might we use local food to generate revenue? Even though we acknowledge that local food brings opportunities for cost savings (waste reduction for example) we also recognize that we will need investments to make this viable in the long term. Let’s use our collective creativity to identify ways to generate money with local food. Read more.”
Learn how you can get involved and share your ideas...
- 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.
Liberal leadership candidate Kathleen Wynne has written Food Forward, committing to pass a strengthened Local Food Act that would, "develop goals and targets around the production, processing, distribution, sales and marketing of Ontario food."
This statement on goals and targets across the sector is an improvement upon uncertain language in the Local Food Act. When the government prorogued the Legislature, the Act, which had just been introduced, was left in limbo.
Wynne had previously commited to re-introducing the Act and serving as Minister of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs. Other relevant points in her platform relating to food/jobs include:
- "Streamline regulations that impact the Agri-food industry, review current rural/agricultural assessment and taxation, and develop a single window information approach to government" Food Forward has asked for a review of regulations that hamper small food enterprises
- "Introduce community hubs for adult education and training - coordinating government, non-profit, and private sector resources to give recent graduates, new Canadians and the unemployed practical tools to participate in the workforce"
Food Forward also wants to see buying targets and government support for farmers who grow healthy, ecological food and small food sector start-ups. Though risk management programs have their place and food exports have been a recent priority of Premier McGuinty, the government and future premier will need to develop more creative policies to effectively address and bring small farms back to Ontario. Food sector policy that considers farmer income, fair labour, and young and newcomer farmers to grow ecologically food for diverse, local markets would support the creation of new food jobs and market opportunities in Toronto.
Food Forward also supports Sustain Ontario's call for food leadership.
See Kathleen Wynne's letter and response to our Food Forward's questionnaire below.
Dear Mr. Higgins,
Thank you very much for your letter enclosing Food Forward’s questionnaire. I am pleased to outline my position on these key issues of importance.
Ontario's farmers and Agri-Food businesses put healthy, locally grown food on our tables, contribute $33 billion to our economy and represent 10 per cent of our entire workforce — 700,000 jobs.
To keep our Agri-Food businesses strong, stable and secure we've invested over $2 billion in farm income stabilization programs since 2003.
Ontarians grow the best food in the world. That's why we're continuing to push hard to promote local foods and support our farmers with risk management programs. While we've called on the federal government to support Ontario farmers, the Hudak PCs won't stand up for our farmers. It's simply not a priority for them.
As Premier, I will work hard supporting, promoting and celebrating locally grown food. And only Ontario Liberals have a plan to keep building a strong and prosperous rural Ontario — one that will continue to support farm families for generations to come.
Mr. Higgins, thank you for the opportunity to respond to the Food Forward’s letter and questions— and please accept my best wishes.
#1. What would you do to support the growth of good food jobs in Ontario across the sector?
I will bring back and pass a strengthened Local Food Act, to support our farmers by promoting food grown and made in Ontario, and develop goals and targets around the production, processing, distribution, sales and marketing of Ontario food.
Sometimes, we Ontario Liberals are accused of not taking rural, agricultural and small town issues seriously. I am going to change that. To demonstrate my personal commitment to rural and small town Ontario and to make sure that a government I lead gets it right, as Leader and Premier I will appoint myself the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs for at least one year.
We also need to be selling more food to the world to create good jobs at home. That's why, in January, the Premier is leading a trade mission to China with a major focus on promoting Ontario agri-food. We're asking every Ontario family to shift just $10 of their weekly grocery budget to locally grown Ontario food, which would increase sales by $2.4 billion for our businesses and create 10,000 jobs.
I will empower our cities and towns, and our rural and northern regions. We need to move forward with a balanced approach celebrating all that rural Ontario can contribute to our shared prosperity. Working together with community and municipal leadership we can secure a prosperous future for our rural and agricultural communities in Ontario.
#2. Would good food jobs or a strengthened Local Food Act be a priority of your government?
I’m proud to have the support of Ted McMeekin, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and I will continue his good work by re-introducing an Ontario Local Food Act and working with farmers to bring more Ontario food to the table.
I am strongly committed to protecting our family farms, with important programs such as risk management, announced in the 2011 Budget. We will continue to work with farmers and industry to put more Ontario food onto kitchen tables. That includes building on our $80-million investment in Ontario’s Buy Local Strategy and supporting our local Ontario food processors through economic development funding. Our Buy Local Strategy includes substantial funding for local farmers’ markets, which has helped them increase the number of farmers’ markets from 90 in 2002 to 159 today.
Celebrating Soupstock, we're remembering the impact of Foodstock, as well as thinking about the impact that a united food movement of the scale we're enjoying in Woodbine Park could make in creating the type of food system we envision.
Please enjoy and share this re-posted blog.
If there’s something big we learned from our province’s 30,000+ person contribution to World Food Day – FoodStock – it’s that Ontarians (both urban and rural folk) strongly value our farmland, local food jobs, and the delicious dishes we make from it all.
This shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Not long ago, we didn’t have the type of food culture and economy we do today. Indeed, we had many more farmers. But it’s unlikely we would have found tens of thousands to make the trek out to a chilly farm to make a donation, enjoy good grub and take a stand on local food.
In the past, a proposal for a giant open-pit mine would have brought out environmentalists concerned about water quality and land degradation with locals worried about the threats to their community. And while those from the affected area have again led the charge, they have today found their broadest support from a burgeoning movement who consider food reasons the primary ones in which to put their booted feet down.
And while foodies had an enjoyable protest demanding their voices be heard against an American hedge fund buying up land for the mega quarry, another type of foodie joined forces with Occupy to set up camp in Toronto, Ottawa, Windsor and many other cities for many of the same underlying reasons.
The present system has led to the ability of corporations, speculators and hedge funds to make growing profits from higher food prices, land ownership and destruction of the commons, while farmland loss, levels of food bank use and atmospheric carbon continue to skyrocket. As the food movement grows, links are being made among issues, from farm work to urban poverty, as are the connections within their common causes and potential solutions.
Farmland protection is but one issue to which a busy movement must keep its attention focused. The “stop the mega quarry” team has the strength behind it to be a winning one. To halt the loss of farmland once and for all, this large group must also lend its attention to ongoing local battles , no matter the jurisdiction, and demand new plans to expand and strengthen the Greenbelt and make provincial legislation win ahead of gas plants, mines and sprawl.
But it also needs to create new winning alliances with farmers, farm workers and food processors to create policies that work for all different parts of the chain. The Greenbelt, though good for the land, hasn’t brought much benefit in and of itself to the farmers. It should also look to whom good food must feed and connect with those poorly nourished by the present food system.
A mix of good ideas (currently proposed by Sustain Ontario and its partners) could help farmers feed cities, while helping to counter the economic forces that make it valuable for farmers to sell their land.
A movement of tens of thousands will not only shift the political tide on an issue. It can, if well-organized, demand the democratic and policy changes that will preserve farmland, and create programs to create good jobs (and to better the existing ones) that could feed local, sustainable Ontario food to all.
The cue has come from the food sovereignty and food democracy movements of the Global South, to take the food power back from the towers of greed, and into the hands of the people.
With newly elected governments, local and global sentiments for change and a food movement burgeoning onto the scene, there could not be a better time to draw a line in our land, raise our voice and say what we stand for.