| May 03, 2007


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Feature Article - May 3, 2007

Food down the road - towards a local food system

by Jeff Green

In one sense the idea of supporting local farmers and market gardeners is simple; it’ s a matter of shopping at farmers’ markets and roadside stalls when possible. By taking it one step further, however, and looking at all of the food purchases families and individuals make, the reality comes clear: most of what we buy is delivered to us from long distances, and it is often heavily processed, affecting its food value.

The implications of this reality, and its impacts on the health and well being of city and country dwellers in a 100 km radius around Kingston spurred the National Farmers’ Union local 316 to organise “Food Down the Road”. This nine-month project is aimed at developing a sustainable local food system in the region.

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The first few months of the project have been centred around a four-part speakers’ series on different topics: Harvesting Support For Local Food; The Future Of Food And Food Sustainability; Taking Steps Towards Local Food For All; and Supporting Structures For Vibrant Local Food Systems.

Three of these events have now taken place, and the fourth is scheduled for May 10 at Kingston City Hall, with guest speakers Wayne Roberts and Lori Stahlbrand.

At the same time, a network of participants in the project is being developed. This network is made up of farmers, including those active in the Verona Farmers’ Market, and consumers, restauranteurs, civic activists, municipal employees, politicians and others.

At the most recent event, on April 24, anti-poverty activists were invited to meet with farmers, business people, and municipal officials from Kingston to talk about how the food needs of the most vulnerable group in the Kingston community are being served, and about how a local food project could be developed that would have an impact on this situation.

Part of the incentive of this session was to broaden the scope of ‘Food Down the Road’, so it is seen as more than a program promoting expensive organic local food for the middle and upper classes.

In Kingston, a major developing issue is that the poorer north end of the city has lost its grocery store, leaving people who don’t own vehicles with a problem accessing any food. Other issues include the fact that processed food is both cheaper and easier to prepare, with instructions on packaging such as “heat and serve”.

“Many people, from all economic classes, don’t know what to do with a potato, so it’s hard to sell them a local potato,” said one participant.

David Hahn, the President of NFU local 316, and a participant at the session, didn’t think the argument that local food is too expensive for anyone holds water.

He pointed to a program in one city in the United States where a local food bank also runs an organic vegetable farm. “They sell their produce to keep the business profitable, and a certain percentage of the vegetables go directly to the food bank. There are plenty of solutions to the food problem; we just need to find them,” he said.

A major focus of Food Down the Road is developing the Kingston market for food grown in the outlying region, and this has led to a partnership with St. Lawrence College and the City of Kingston, both of whom have been sending representatives to the events.

On the rural end, the participation of the Frontenac Federation of Agriculture, in the person of its President John Williamson, has been a welcome addition to what is an initiative of the National Farmers’ Union.

The Frontenac Federation of Agriculture has 400 members, about 2/3 of whom raise cattle, either in dairy or cow/calf-breeding operations. Most of the rest raise cash crops, such as corn, soy, or wheat.

John Williamson told the News that he thinks Food Down the Road “is positive in the sense that anything we can do to focus attention on food and food security is beneficial.”

Williamson sees some limits to the impact of the process, but thinks it ties in well with a more general goal of promoting regional and national agriculture.

“To me the first thing is to buy Canadian, the second is to buy from Ontario, and the third is to buy local. If we can get people thinking this way, and get labelling in place so that consumers are buying Canadian when they think they are, we will all be better off.”

Economies of scale in the food system have brought about changes that will not be reversed, according to Williamson, and the majority of food eaten in Eastern Ontario will continue to be grown and produced elsewhere.

“But any increase in the number of local producers, market gardeners, pork or beef producers that are selling a quality product to a developing market, will only mean there are more local farms, and that is good for all of us,” Williamson said. “I’m strong supporter of the family farm. They are much better for the local economy. ”

As Food Down the Road wends its way towards its culmination at a local food summit scheduled for the fall, the perspectives of as many local food system participants as possible are being sought. In the Food Down the Road literature, the food summit is described as an opportunity to “explore and discuss the many facets of local market and food system development. From sustainable agriculture practices to land access for young farmers to local food access for low income families we will cover a lot of ground together.”

Organisers are trying to secure a well-known keynote speaker from the burgeoning alternative food movement for the summit.

Further information about Food Down the Road is available at nfu.ca/on/misc_files/FoodDownRoad.html.

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