Meeting local food challenges

Sep
10

- 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.