Recent Media Coverage

Rethinking 'local' in the Local Food Act

by Julee Boan

The Chronicle-Journal

July 22, 2013

Amidst a politically controversial year — omnibus bills, gas plant closures, Premier McGuinty’s resignation — the Liberal government’s re-introduction of the Local Food Act looks to be as easy as apple pie. The proposed legislation builds on the recent resurgence of local food networks across Ontario and on the understanding that strong local food systems can improve community well-being.

Farmers’ markets, food co-operatives and food-system research are all increasingly popular; so the bill has not given very much fodder for opposition critics.

The Progressive Conservatives want to bolster food literacy and the NDP — who had introduced a similar bill two years ago — suggest changing the date of Local Food Week. Essentially, the act enables the setting of local food goals, and generally speaking, all parties are in support.

This feel-good legislation presents a tremendous opportunity. But to get the economic, health and environmental benefits of reducing our reliance on imported, non-perishable processed foods and truly improve the wellbeing of communities in the North, the Act must be truly “local,” and recognize the value of forest and freshwater foods, or so-called “wild” foods — including berries, wild rice, deer, grouse, fish, fiddleheads and mushrooms.

Recently, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency changed its decades-long definition of local from “food produced within 50 kilometres of where it’s sold” to “food produced in the same province,” and the Local Food Act has fallen in step.

But calling food grown in Niagara and imported to Fort Albany “local” seems a little perplexing. One of the main purposes of the Local Food Act should be to drastically reduce the distance food travels from field to plate. Currently, the average North American meal travels some 2,400 kilometres.

The vast majority of food in Northern Ontario is imported, which limits food security. Communities are vulnerable to disruptions beyond their control.

Examples from other northern communities should be cause for concern. In June of 2012, a series of mudslides and washouts along the Alaskan Highway closed Whitehorse, Yukon off from its trucked-in food supply. Within three days, the city’s grocery shelves were virtually bare. In Northern Ontario, agriculture plays an important role, but arable land is limited compared to southern Ontario and the growing season is shorter. As such, many Northern Ontarians, particularly in remote communities, use forest and freshwater foods as an important source of local, fresh, organic food.

Forest and freshwater foods present a much healthier alternative to imported foods with high sugar content that are most readily available in the North and contribute to obesity and diabetes. Both health problems have reached alarming levels in our communities.

Besides their nutritional value, forest and freshwater foods provide social and environmental benefits. Harvesting forest and freshwater foods can maintain cultural traditions, foster a greater connection to the land and support intergenerational relationships. The physical exertion involved in activities like berry picking can contribute to a healthy and active lifestyle.

Additionally, the consumption of forest and freshwater foods reduces northern reliance on foods grown with intensive inputs. Conventional industrial agriculture can pollute water, soil and air with heavy use of animal waste, pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers. These contaminants move through food webs, bio-accumulate (increase in intensity as they move up the food chain) and overwhelm our waterways.

The local food movement of the 1970s was considered a revolutionary response to the increasing dominance of factory farming, agribusiness and fast-food chain restaurants. Since then, the demand for locally produced food that is good for the environment and human health has grown steadily. The Local Food Act must capitalize on a fertile political climate by furthering these noble beginnings — now is the time to let our MPPs know that wild foods are local foods in the North.

Julee Boan is a board member of Environment North in Thunder Bay.

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