- 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.
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:
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:
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:
- Public institutions purchase of local, socially and environmentall sustainable food;
- A review of regulations that hamper small food and farm enterprises;
- Support and funding for community food programs and social entrepreneurs in low income communities.
Darcy Higgins is the Executive Director of Food Forward. You can contact him at email@example.com