| Nov 01, 2007

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Feature Article - November 1, 2007 From the Ground Up: Local FoodPrimer (Part 2 of 2)By Jeff Green

(“Food Down the Road” is a year-long project aimed at developing a mechanism to promote and expand the consumption and production of locally grown food. The project was initiated by Local 316 of the National Farmer’s Union and has produced a 75-page book ”From the Ground Up: A primer for community action”.


Part 1 of this article dealt with some of the historical information about food production in Frontenac County. Part 2 concerns itself with the reasons for the decline in local farming and some of the innovations that are aimed at encouraging food production in the region)It hasn’t been that long since there were times of year when certain foods would be unavailable in local supermarkets, or the price would jump markedly in the off-season. Red peppers were sold for $5 a pound, when they were available at all, in the winter and as low as $0.99 a pound in the summer.

This was easy to understand. The winter peppers were imported from Mexico, and they were followed by peppers from closer and closer to home, until Canadian field peppers came along in August.

This has all changed. The price of red peppers tends to fluctuate from $1.99 to $3.99 at the stores. They are imported from far away or from regional greenhouse operations on a year-round basis, and Ontario field-grown red peppers might never get to local stores at all. The food system bears more of a resemblance to a manufacturing process than the old-style family farm.

There are hosts of statistics that point to the way food has become a highly traded, international commodity. A recent study concluded that the ingredients in an average Canadian meal travel 2000 km to get to the table, and another study concluded that a basic meal of an all-dressed cheeseburger and potatoes travels 4338 km to get to the table in Kingston. Canada is a major food exporter (5th in the world) and importer (4th in the world).

Geographical conditions explain some of this since Canada has always imported fruits and vegetables, but there are other factors. Even when local tomatoes and apples are available, imported products still dominate on grocery shelves, and they are not necessarily priced higher.

This phenomenon is called redundant trade, the simultaneous exporting and importing of the same product to the same region, and it has become common. Food processing is still a large industry in Eastern Ontario, but only in communities that are located on the 401 Highway. Twenty-one percent of employment in Hastings County and 14% in Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry is in the food-processing sector, but in Frontenac County only 4% of the population is employed in food processing, and the figure is only 2% in Lennox and Addington. Most of the processing in eastern Ontario takes the form of branch plant operations for Kraft, General Mills, and Coca-Cola. The raw materials used by these plants are trucked or shipped in, and the products are then trucked out.

There is a shortage of processing capacity dedicated to local production. A local cattle auction house has closed, and there are only three abattoirs left in the vicinity of cattle operations in the southern end of Frontenac County. The majority of the crops that are grown in the region are shipped away for processing.

The net effect of all these realities is that even though Frontenac County has a heritage of small-scale agriculture, most residents now don't grow any of their own food, and we don’t purchase food that comes from our neighbours either. Most of the food we eat is identical to the food we would eat if we lived in downtown Kingston, or downtown Toronto or Chicago for that matter. The food we eat is grown in distant parts of the world, is processed in food factories and delivered to the back door of the grocery store in semi-trailers from the Loblaws or Sobey’s Food terminal.

The system is very efficient; we pay less for our food in relation to our incomes than ever before, and we eat the food products we want, whenever we want.

There is a major downside to this, according to "From the Ground Up". From the point of view of food security, which looks at a community’s ability to feed itself, the picture is not rosy.

The food system we depend upon is itself dependent upon on cheap transportation, and between projected increases in the price of oil and concerns about green house gas emissions, shipping food great distances may not be a viable option in the future.

There are also concerns about the way food must be grown to be shipped great distances, and the kind of agriculture this has brought about. Varieties are selected for their ability to travel, rather than for their taste and nutritional value. Mono-cropping, which is a major feature of the world food system, is a form of agriculture that is highly reliant on pesticides, which is in part responsible for the increasing demand for organic food. Sales of organic food increased by 28% in Canada in 2006. However, according to a study published in June of 2006, only 15% of the organic food consumed in Ontario is produced domestically.

The final section of “From the Ground Up” is called “Models for Change”, and it proposes that a shift to a local food system can help us solve the problems of farm income, lack of access to healthy food, and lack of ecological sustainability in our current food system.

A whole series of initiatives are considered in this section, including established businesses such as the Mill Street Cafe in Sydenham, which is an extension of Desert Lake Farms, a pioneering local food initiative that has been delivering fresh produce to Kingston households for years, and has now an innovative retail outlet and restaurant.

Newer businesses, such as the Frontenac Farmers Market and Food Less Traveled in Verona, are also featured, as are concepts such as Community Supported Agriculture, which connects consumers directly with farmers.

It also talks about institutions changing their purchasing policies in order to develop a local food culture in the region surrounding Kingston, among a host of other initiatives.

These initiatives will be further considered this weekend at a local food summit. The summit kicks off with a keynote address by Thomas Homer-Dixon at the Sydenham Street United Church on Friday evening leading into a series of workshops at St. Lawrence College on Saturday. The summit wraps up on Sunday. For further information and to register, go to Fooddowntheroad.ca. The full version of “From the Ground Up” is posted on the website as well. Alternatively, phone 613-767-4127.

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