provincial policy

Sep
10

Meeting local food challenges

- 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.

Next steps

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.

Apr
4

Local Food Act introduction

The Local Food Act was introduced in the Legislature on March 25 with a good introductory debate on local food need by the three parties. It passed first reading and now goes onto further debate and committee work, in which we will push forward our recommendations (see previous blogs). We wanted to share the debate, including a mention in the House of Food Forward and Sustain Ontario, and the Premier's commitment to us for a stronger Act:

Hon. Kathleen O. Wynne: It’s a great honour and pleasure to be here in my role as Minister of Agriculture and Food to introduce the Local Food Act, and I welcome all of our guests. Thank you very much for being here to witness this. Thank you so much.

This bill supports, promotes and celebrates the good things that are grown, harvested and made in Ontario.

J’ai le plaisir et l’honneur d’être ici, à titre de ministre de l’Agriculture et de l’Alimentation, pour présenter la Loi de 2013 sur les aliments locaux. Ce projet de loi donne son soutien aux bonnes choses qui poussent, qui sont récoltées et qui sont produites en Ontario. Il en fait également la promotion.

I’m committed to reintroducing this important piece of legislation. I committed to that because, if passed, it will form part of a comprehensive local food strategy that will strengthen our agri-food sector and will help more people find, buy and eat food that’s made and grown in Ontario, which is very important to our government.

The legislation would do this by allowing the minister to consult with stakeholders and industry to establish goals and targets to help increase local food awareness, access and sales. It will allow the minister to work with public sector organizations to share information on their progress and their results towards these goals. It would also proclaim a Celebrate Ontario Local Food Week, and it would require the minister to produce a local food report on its activities to support local food.

As I mentioned, this bill is just one part of a broader strategy to promote local food. So, outside of this legislation, beyond the legislation, we’re also proposing more education about the benefits of local food; more support, including financial support, for communities and regions working on local food innovation and initiatives; and a commitment to consult with stakeholders on the best ways to promote local food.

We’ll lead by example, through an Ontario government policy requiring ministries to consider local food for procurements under $25,000.

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Mr. Speaker, as we all know, although we won’t sing right now, good things grow in Ontario.

Interjection: Sing it.

Hon. Kathleen O. Wynne: We could sing it. I don’t know if that breaks a protocol in the Legislature.

We want the people of Ontario to reach for local food at home, in restaurants, at work or in schools. I actually believe that the people of Ontario are eager to do this, that they are actually ahead of us on this. They want to buy locally grown food.

Nous voulons que la population de l’Ontario puisse obtenir des aliments locaux à la maison, dans les restaurants, au travail et dans les écoles.

We want to strengthen the connections between rural and urban Ontario; we want to create jobs and economic growth, and this bill will contribute to that. By building a strong local food industry, we also increase Ontario’s export potential, delivering the good things grown and processed here in Ontario to the world.

There are consumers who understand and appreciate the benefits of locally grown food, and there’s more retail interest than ever. And I would just say that I think there is probably a better understanding about locally grown food than there is about locally processed food. So I’m glad that the processes are here, because it is definitely part of the conversation about how we raise awareness about processing as an important part of the agri-food business.

With countless skilled farmers and food processors here in Ontario, the time is right for this legislation. That’s why I’m calling on every member of this Legislature to support this legislation and, by doing so, to support local food. We want everyone to know that good things grow in Ontario.

The Speaker (Hon. Dave Levac): Responses?

Mr. Ernie Hardeman: The Ontario PC caucus are strong supporters of local food. Many of us come from rural ridings that have a significant agriculture sector. We know the farmers; we know how great the food they produce is and the challenges that they face. That’s why we were so disappointed in the Local Food Act that was introduced last fall and the version introduced today, which seems, after a quick look, virtually the same.

Last fall, when this government introduced the Local Food Act, agricultural organizations and local food groups were hoping for a bill that would address some of those challenges and make a real impact on our food system. Although the preamble laid out great goals, there was nothing in the bill to achieve them. Local food group Food Forward said that the Local Food Act “must be strengthened.” Sustain Ontario said that it had “missed many opportunities.” Even our now Premier acknowledged the act’s shortcomings when she promised to reintroduce a strengthened food act, and yet the bill introduced today is almost the same as the one introduced six months ago.

There is one change, Mr. Speaker, in that Local Food Week is moved to the week before Thanksgiving. Premier, everyone involved in agriculture knows that’s Agriculture Week, and has been for 15 years. It’s great to celebrate local food, but you seem to have forgotten where it comes from. Replacing Ontario Agriculture Week is insulting to our agriculture community.

We believe that for a food act to have impact, it must address the entire food system from field to fork and have real, meaningful changes. That’s why in our recent white paper, Respect for Rural Ontario, we proposed a comprehensive food act which would support local procurement and help our farmers, food processors and agri-businesses by reducing red tape and supporting Ontario’s food system. Our Ontario food act would include a dedicated fund for risk-management programs and one-window access to government for farmers and agri-businesses.

Four months after our leader, Tim Hudak, announced that we would reduce red tape for our farmers by implementing one-window access to the government, the party opposite copied our commitment. We appreciate the acknowledgement that it was needed, but a year and a half later, they have taken no action to implement it. I had hoped to see that in this bill.

Our white paper laid out a number of other actions that would strengthen the food system and promote local food, and I had hoped to see them in this bill as well. It’s not enough for government to simply set targets for local food procurement; they must ensure that they have conditions for procurement to succeed, such as our proposal to create a regional food terminal to build on the success of the Ontario Food Terminal.

In their recent green papers, the Greenbelt Fund stated that “lack of access to products from Ontario farms is a fundamental barrier to increase the amount of Ontario food in public institutions.” They identified that one of the barriers to government procurement of local food was that the supply needed to be aggregated. This mirrors what we heard from Michigan about their experience with Buy Michigan First.

Two locations we would consider for a regional food terminal would be in southwestern Ontario in London or in eastern Ontario near Ottawa. In both areas, they have locally grown food that is being loaded on trucks and shipped to Toronto, only to have some of it trucked right back to the region it came from. By creating a regional food terminal, we would reduce our carbon footprint, create jobs, improve market access for farmers and have a reliable supply for restaurants, retailers and food processors.

However, Mr. Speaker, the most significant challenge in our food system is excessive paperwork and government red tape. This government claims they have cut red tape, but 77.2% of farmers tell us it is increasing. That is similar to the results from last year’s OFA survey. The problem is not just on farms; 76% of food processors and 86% of agri-businesses also said that red tape was increasing.

This government continues to implement policies without any regard to impact on farmers. The most recent example is the outrageous increase in Ontario Tire Stewardship fees for agricultural tires. For instance, the cost of a tire for a John Deere 9300 has increased from $61.16 to $729.12. For a John Deere 9770, the tire fees increased from $91.74 to $1,644. It’s not enough for government to hold photo ops and introduce a bill with a great name; we need to take real steps to decrease the challenges faced by our agriculture industry.

I’m very disappointed that in six months we have not made progress toward a real food act that would make significant improvements to our agriculture industry and our food system, and that our agriculture industry now gets so little respect that it has been demoted to a part-time minister who is replacing Ontario Agriculture Week with the food act week.

The Speaker (Hon. Dave Levac): Further responses?

Mr. John Vanthof: It’s once again an honour for me to stand in this place and speak on behalf of my New Democratic colleagues on a subject that is very near and dear to all of us: food—proudly grown, processed, sold and enjoyed right here in Ontario. I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome all our agri-food guests this afternoon. Specifically, the topic is the reintroduction of the Local Food Act.

The Ontario agri-food sector contributes more than $34 billion to the provincial economy and employs more than 700,000 people. It’s the cornerstone of our provincial economy. The agri-food sector is incredibly diverse, from large commercial vegetable growers in the Holland Marsh to community gardens in Davenport; from Maple Leaf Foods to Creative Meats in Warren; from Kraft to Thornloe Cheese; from Loblaws to the local farmers’ market; and from McDonalds to the local breakfast restaurant. Agri-food business comes in all shapes and sizes. The one thing that unites all in this sector is the goal to provide families in Ontario with tasty, healthy food. This sector has proven to be incredibly stable, actually growing through Ontario’s recent economic downtown.

The New Democratic Party has long supported the concept of local food. That’s why our leader, Andrea Horwath, has proposed a private member’s bill which called for hard targets on the amount of Ontario-grown food purchased by provincial government bodies. Not only did we want to set an example for the private sector, but our initiative would have kick-started many local food initiatives by providing at least one solid anchor customer: the Ontario government.

The reintroduced Local Food Act appears to have some of the same intentions, although it lacks any hard targets or achievable objectives. It appears to be a plan to make a plan, a conversation about food, a great press release about motherhood and apple pie, but maybe not much else.

Mr. Mike Colle: What have you got against apple pie?

Mr. John Vanthof: And I like apple pie.

Some would accuse the bill of being a paper tiger, but, if passed as written, its vagueness and lack of detail will actually give the government wide powers to do whatever it wants in this sector, and that should cause widespread concern in the rural community.

Farmers across the province have all had to deal with solutions created by Queen’s Park. There is widespread distrust in the rural agricultural community regarding their urban neighbours pushing issues of which they have little understanding or misconceived perceptions of how food is produced.

The New Democratic Party welcomes the introduction of the Local Food Act, not because we believe that the act, as drafted, will be of much benefit to growers or consumers but because it will bring the issues faced by all levels of the food chain to this floor for debate and to committee, if it passes second reading.

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These issues need to be addressed. For example, small abattoirs are being forced to close because the regulations imposed on them have little to do with the level of risk. Food safety should never be compromised, but many of the regulation changes that mom-and-pop shops face every day have more to do with the government creating rules to solve problems instead of actually looking at what caused the problems in the first place. There are lots of examples, and I’m looking forward to the debate.

Over time, a rift has grown between urban and rural Ontario. It has been intensified by government actions like the Green Energy Act and the recent decisions regarding the horse racing industry. The reason that rift is so big is because people in the country didn’t have a voice before those decisions were taken, and that has got to change.

If the Local Food Act continues on this path of dictating to the countryside what the city thinks is best, it will be a failure, an ultimate failure. It will be up to the government to prove that it really wants to listen to the farm community.

The reintroduced food act does have one change. It’s one action item: the creation of a Celebrate Local Food week, and the day has been changed from May to the week before Thanksgiving. That does overlap Agriculture Week, and that is maybe a problem, but agriculture and food are the same thing.

But once again, who asked? Who asked? Agriculture Week has been here a long time. Did anyone who drafted this act call anybody up and say, “Would you like to have it the same week as Agriculture Week?” You see? So, again, please—

Interjections.

The Speaker (Hon. Dave Levac): Order.

Mr. John Vanthof: Hopefully, urban and rural Ontario can start to work together, but we have to stop dictating to the people in the country. We’ve had enough. Thank you.

Mar
20

Small food businesses: what's driving you nuts?

We hear often from our members about regulations at different levels of government that hamper small food and farming producers small start-ups from getting going or scaling up your business.

We're wondering what policy, regulation, and government stumbling blocks you've faced in your good food business. Please let us know in the comments section below - this info will be really helpful for us to make some change. Please share your story:

Mar
18

No time to wait on food policy - how everything's coming together

It's quite a time for food security, as the provincial government speaks to several ways of moving forward, criss-crossing policy reports, legislation, and ideas on food policy. We've also never had a civil society so engaged in working towards food policy change.

The government is finally planning to move forward on social assistance through the results of its review, which had key recommendations on employment and rates of support. We've participated in advocacy on raising rates from the Put Food in the Budget campaign, and hope it moves forward.

Meanwhile, a government commissioned report was titled "No Time to Wait"... it's a strategy released for policy actions for healthy kids, with a preventative health focus. and food is the main and most extensive set of its recommendations. One of the proposals is to ban marketingof junk food to children. Something already proposed in a private member's bill by NDP MPP Rosario Marchese.

Another of its proposal is to provide incentives for food businesses to support community-based food programs, which has been proposed in a private member's bill by PC MPP Bob Bailey.

Minister of Health Deb Matthew agreed that we they need to move now as the title suggests. 

The PCs last week released an agriculture strategy with some excellent ideas on supporting food processors and local farmers with a new food hub, and a review of regulations, something we're also working to advance.

Further still, we are expecting the re-release of the Local Food Act, something Premier (and food+ag minister) Kathleen Wynne has committed to strengthening.

This approach to food policy coming from here and there and everywhere isn't new for governments at all levels, which respond to food through all sorts of departments and policies. 

The benefits of integrating food policy however have been touted at all levels, by Food Secure Canada and Sustain Ontario, and has been done to an extent at the municipal level, with a Food Strategy for the City of Toronto.

Bringing the pieces of food policies on the table under a broader provincial food strategy would help streamline the solutions that could support everyone from farmers to eaters to develop a healthier province. It would also recognize the ability of one policy to have multiple benefits for several desirable social outcomes.

It's an excellent time to move on food policy for several reasons:

  •  New food policies meet Premier Wynne's objectives and throne speech, like supporting job growth in rural Ontario and supporting small businesses to create jobs in the City and suburbs, while also creating a more socially just province.
  •  Everything's coming together - food policies are making headway through all of these recommendations and the government understands the benefit of fast action.
  •  As parties begin to cooperate more (it's actually happening, a little!) in this minority government, we can take look to food policies that will get support from multiple parties like the ones we're advocating for. And all MPPs will see the differences these policies can make in their communities.
  •  A Local Food Act is to be launched from a Premier who says she is ready to listen to Ontarians... the more ambitious the Act, the more results we get for jobs and health outcomes.

Three policies we've landed on that would create jobs in good food have shown growing resonance from workers and entrepreneurs, organizations, and the people of Ontario who have signed on from across the province. We think these have great a chance of support from different parties in the Act and in the budget:

  1. Public institutions purchase of local, socially and environmentall sustainable food;
  2. A review of regulations that hamper small food and farm enterprises;
  3. Support and funding for community food programs and social entrepreneurs in low income communities.
 
Food Forward and folks from around the province are ready to promote legislation that can get these things done, to show examples of good food policy in action and hopefully in a more connected and strategic way.
 

Darcy Higgins is the Executive Director of Food Forward. You can contact him at darcy@pushfoodforward.com