- 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's Food Idol Awards celebrate outstanding contributions by food actionists – among our volunteers, community members, projects, and businesses – focused on healthy food and communities that are inclusive, diverse, ethical, local, and resilient. As the place where Torontonians meet to create a better City through food, we are asking you to help us identify and celebrate new efforts and results that are especially deserving of community recognition.
New this year: We will be awarding the Food Sprouts Grant of $1,000 to a project that advances food justice in Toronto.
Awards will be announced at #foodTOEats, our Third Anniversary celebration on August 7th at Bento Miso. Please see the brief call for nominations for our 2013 awards:
Nominations are invited in the following categories:
Breakout Food Activist Award – Recognizes an individual whose understanding of food policy has led him/her to community organizing or standing up for food justice/good food policy to business, institutions, or government.
Spicy New Venture Award – Recognizes a food-related business or entrepreneur whose recent work has led to the development of a delicious venture contributing significantly to increase good food, food justice, and/or good food jobs expansion in one or more Toronto neighbourhoods.
Sweet New Initiative Award – Recognizes an organization, group, or partnership whose recent work has led to the development of an initiative contributing significantly to increase good food, food justice, and/or community food security in one or more Toronto neighbourhoods.
Food Forward Outstanding Member Award – Recognizes the commitment and contributions of a Food Forward individual member towards our mission, by supporting the design and implementation of our projects, development, capacity, and/or outreach. Also considers independent work the individual has contributed to related good food projects or policies through education, advocacy, and connecting.
Toronto Food Champion Award – Recognizes the commitment and contributions of a community member who has worked hard to advance a better Toronto through good food, food justice, and/or community food security in our neighbourhoods or communities. Their work may have been as a volunteer or employee of an organization, or through their own leadership efforts.
Food Sprouts Grant – A $1,000 grant for a project (for-profit, non-profit, or grassroots) that advances food justice in Toronto neighbourhoods or communities. The successful project may focus on community building, advocacy, job creation or other areas that would benefit from a small grant.
Criteria & Qualifications
The selection committee will be looking for good food work that is practical, visionary, and innovative.
We are considering work that puts a focus on food and communities that are inclusive, dieverse, ethical, local, or resilient). We also recognize contribution of efforts to good food jobs and community economic development in Toronto.
As we recognize new leadership, work on the initiative should have begun or significantly carried out in the last two years.
We know that good food work and non-profit/for-profit lines are blurring across lines of innovation, so please apply to the category you feel your nominee fits best.
Nominators should not nominate themselves or a project they have had a significant role in organizing, except in the case of the Food Sprouts Grant in which we welcome you to apply with your own project. Individuals may make more than one nomination and in any category. Decisions of the committee will be final.
Tzazná Miranda Leal (Justicia for Migrant Workers), Sang Kim (YakitoriBar and Seoul Food Co.), Gail Gordon Oliver (Edible Toronto), Carly Dunster (Carly Dunster Law and 2002 Breakout Food Activist)
Awards will be presented on August 7 at #foodTOEats, Food Forward's third anniversary celebration and awards night. Awardees will receive delicious prizes, congraultations, and positive media/social media coverage from our community.
Tell us briefly about the person or project and how they’ve been successful in their good food work, reflecting on the awards criteria outlined above, and answering the points below
Deadline is by the end of the day, Tuesday, July 23, 2012.
Email your submission to Vivian at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please include the name of the award and nominee in the subject line, and:
- Your name and email/phone contact
- Name of nominee and email/phone contact
- What was the inspiration of the founders to start this project or work? (100 words)
- In what two ways has or will this project/business/person demonstrate a committment to good food, food justice, community food security, or good food jobs? (150 words)
- If you had to choose, what is the single best example of the impact of this project/business/person? (100 words), and for the grant, how will you use the money? (200 words)
- Website/social media and email/phone contact for nominee
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:
If Toronto and Ontario want to be successful economically and socially over the next few years, we must create more jobs.
This has been on the mind of the public, businesses, and politicians lately, but hasn’t been prioritized in the way it needs to be. If we create new jobs in a good food sector, we have more work that is meaningful, and that improves the health of our communities and environment, while giving a leg up to newcomers, young people, and others looking to have a job and make a difference.
The GTA alone already has 110,000 direct food jobs, with those in processing being more resilient and higher paying than those of many other sectors. Most food grown in Ontario is also processed in Ontario.
However, the vast majority of food consumed in Ontario is imported. Farmers are suffering with an income crisis, while our food is being subsidized by off-farm incomes, cheap farm labour, environmental pollution, poor treatment of animals, and processed foods. So our health, environment, and work standards are affected. It doesn’t need to be that way. The solutions are complex, but there are some things we could be doing right away to make a change.
Quality grown foods sold to local markets can often yield farmers a better price while bringing good food through bakeries, dairies, and restaurants to consumers. The GTA Food and Farming Action Plan, endorsed by all area municipalities, champions a quite notable goal of creating the greatest food and farming cluster in the world. Working towards that goal would quickly bring good new jobs to Ontario. Political leadership in 2013 would support the sector in making it happen.
The Liberal Party leadership race has been talking jobs and entrepreneurship. You’ve heard it from Glen Murray, Charles Sousa and others. Eric Hoskins mentioned growing food sector jobs specifically in a leadership debate, while Kathleen Wynne has vowed to bring back the Local Food Act and become Minister of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs if she becomes premier.
A stronger Local Food Act that puts job creation at the forefront could go a long way. In the United States, the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act has been proposed and co-sponsored by dozens of congressman and senators, and would provide policies and funding for good food jobs.
We need that in Ontario too. Many ideas to do it have already been proposed, and we now need them supported by better legislation, regulations, funding, and programs.
The Local Food Act must be strengthened to create further goals, targets, research, and support for hospitals, universities, and all other public institutions, to increase the amount of fresh, local, and ecologically produced food, as suggested by Sustain Ontario. The NDP’s Buy Local Food Act contained targets for local and organic food. The City of Markham’s local food policy has brought procurement of local sustainable food to 30%.
The Province should also work with businesses, municipal governments, public health and economic development departments, and other agencies to build the capacity needed to bring local food infrastructure back to Ontario.
A review of regulations that hamper small food enterprise could also lead to the creation of new jobs in Ontario. In rural, suburban, and urban parts of the province, entrepreneurs are finding unclear and outdated, intelligence-challenging regulations that don’t affect health, safety, or the environment, but hamper their ability to undertake a business venture.
PC MPP Ernie Hardeman has launched a survey of food processors, asking what regulations are causing headaches and to determine how the sector can be better supported. Some regulations don’t work for small-scale local enterprises and have resulted in closures. Governments need to be leading or supporting, not hindering the local economy.
Finally, the government can create jobs by investing in our communities, as has been proposed by the Green Party. Community food solutions from social entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations are forming healthier communities through community development programs, food literacy, and local economic development. Their work is often high-impact but low-budget. Governments have been largely missing in action, and must engage more closely with this on the ground work.
Providing stable community grants and funding to this work would be money well spent in creating good food sector jobs. Shifting a relatively small funding pool through in any of a number of ministries could be used by organizations to implement preventative health solutions while creating multiplier social and economic effects. Young people are ready with the skills and passion to work in this area and to show results.
By focusing on strong good food procurement and capacity, better regulations, and community funding, we can create healthier urban centres alongside more vibrant rural communities. The quicker we act, the sooner we see more people employed in this most critical sector.
Contact Darcy Higgins, Executive Director, at email@example.com