Monday, February 3, 2014

Getting in on The Local Food Act - “Good things grow in Ontario”

Getting in on The Local Food Act - “Good things grow in Ontario”

By Bryan Lavery

The Local Food Act was passed in November 2013, which the province says will help make more local food available in markets, schools, cafeterias, grocery stores and restaurants. Through education, The Local Food Act encourages the growth and development of markets for foods grown and made in Ontario. It also provides funding for collaborative local food projects and funding for experimentation and innovation in the agri-food industry.

Like many people, I started to learn about the importance of local food at a young age by visiting the Royal Winter Agricultural Fair, farmers' markets, farm gates and small town fall fairs across Ontario. These experiences left an indelible impression on a young urbanite.

They were the first opportunities that I had to get in touch with our local food heritage. “Good things grow in Ontario” that’s the message Foodland Ontario wants consumers to remember when they go food shopping. It’s a catchy jingle and I recently realized how effective it is when I heard the children of one of my colleagues singing it while at play.

When the Foodland program began in 1977, the advertising message informed consumers of the wide variety and availability of Ontario-grown food products. Both the theme line "Good things grow in Ontario" and the Foodland Ontario symbol encouraged consumers to buy Ontario.

After 37 years, Foodland Ontario continues to be a successful promotional program that helps raise consumer awareness and demand for Ontario food products in stores, farmers' markets and in restaurants. By promoting and identifying the characteristics of quality Ontario products, Foodland Ontario’s message communicates a vital Ontario food advantage: flavour.

In 2006, 95% of principal grocery shoppers recognized the Foodland Ontario symbol and demonstrated a partiality to purchase Ontario produce.

 This campaign works with all agricultural sectors and builds on the importance of supporting farmers and purchasing fresh, locally grown, quality produce. It also concentrates on the more understated message of trust.

When I say trust, I refer to the confidence we place in independent Ontario farmers, in their crops and products, in food safety, and in their contribution to the fabric of Ontario’s food culture and economy. Trust is an important factor in consumer faithfulness. If a retailer showcases “local” in its offerings, an understanding of what that means can help to reduce consumers’ confusion on what exactly is local in that particular instance.

The most significant marketing term for food this past decade is the word “local”, now firmly entrenched in the popular lexicon as a brand for freshness, seasonality, sustainability and quality. The definition of “local” is open to wide interpretation depending on whom you are talking to, but is generally recognized as food grown or produced within a certain radius such as 50 or 100 miles.
The term “local” may also be seen from a more conceptual perspective of micro climate and naturally recurring geographic boundaries, as well as referring to an area that grows food for a specific population. Global instability, dependence on other countries, and intelligent economics are among the many good reasons to promote a sustainable local agricultural sector.

The term Slow Food really refers to a few key principles that most people already know about and practice, at least sometimes. It is a reference to food that is produced or prepared in accordance with local culinary traditions, typically using high-quality locally sourced ingredients. The opposite of fast food.

I first heard about Slow Food while attending a culinary program in a small town near the Adriatic Sea in Italy, seated with other chefs from Ontario and Quebec in a state-of-the-art culinary amphitheatre fifteen years ago.

 I had gone to increase my knowledge about the local culinary specialties of Emilia-Romagna. What I took away from that experience was so much more. In addition to learning how to make the unique regional specialties and developing an appreciation for the locally produced artisanal products, I gained invaluable insight into their culinary traditions and what the term local truly meant.

At the same time, I discerned real similarities in food culture, values and philosophies between this traditional Italian cuisine and our own Southwestern Ontario regional gastronomy.

Although I was inclined not to serve a tomato out of season in my restaurant, the terms “local” and “seasonal” suddenly had a political connotation when I went into a store or a farmers’ market and saw less expensive genetically modified California strawberries competing with local strawberries at the height of strawberry season. This was just a few short years before the “eat local” movements gained momentum.

Over time even our local supermarket chains are took notice and began to change their buying strategies in an attempt to make space in their produce aisles for more local seasonal fruits and vegetables. Of course, this is the logical alternative to grocers being handcuffed by year-round contracts with large wholesale distributors, often thousands of miles away.

Yet, as happy as this change in direction makes many of us feel, the reason behind this shift in strategy, I suspect, is not purely altruistic or a response to consumer demand. As fuel costs continue to rise to unprecedented heights, the price of processing, packaging, refrigeration and transport of food to local markets becomes less attractive for retailers.

Buying and eating “local” makes more sense not only to the consumer but also to the retailer. Add this to the increasing preference and status that consumers attach to local food, and we can see what has contributed to the success of the “local” movements.

Statistics show that grocery store shoppers consider the quality of the produce as most important to them in their choice of supermarkets. Consumer studies also indicate that 50% of women and 39% of men have changed supermarkets based solely based on the consistency and quality of fresh produce.

Today we depend on a small number of crop species for human nutrition; less than 30 plant species provide 95% of the world’s sustenance. In the past century, 300,000 plant species have become extinct. Since the beginning of the 20th century, North America has lost 93% of its agricultural products. Europe has lost almost 85%.

An important benefit of local food systems is the encouragement of multiple cropping and the growing of a variety of species and cultivars simultaneously, as opposed to the prevalent commercial practice of large scale single crop plantings. Multiple cropping is the practice of growing two or more crops simultaneously in the same space during the same growing season. For example, a farmer may grow tomatoes, onions and marigolds in the same field. The marigolds repel some pests, reducing or eliminating the farmer’s reliance on commercial pesticides.

There is now an interest in reviving and cataloguing the forgotten flavours of heirloom varieties. Heirloom is a term now commonly used to describe a cultivar that has been handed down from one generation to another. Cultivar refers to a plant variety with particular characteristics that has been created or intentionally selected and maintained through cultivation, and when propagated retains its unique attributes.

It is interesting to understand why what I call “the return to flavour” has happened. As varieties of fruits and vegetables continued to narrow to only a small number that were considered the most marketable, an interest in reviving homegrown heritage products occurred. In southern Ontario, even local field tomato production was cut in half in the late 1990’s when it became difficult to compete with low-cost foreign imports and the more lucrative greenhouse varieties that obtain a better price for export.

Fruit and vegetable varieties were discarded by big growers, food processors and the fast food restaurant industry because they were not commercially viable. They did not ship well, store well or conform to size, shape, texture or colour standards set by the industry. Many of these heirloom varieties have gradually made their way back into seed catalogues, local farms, home-based and community gardens and on restaurant menus.

I predict, in the not too distant future, the farmer and producer will have an even more pronounced profile, resulting in an increased influence in reforming the local food systems.

Food enthusiasts are now following farmers, the way they follow chefs. Farm-to-table menus identify the provenance of products, farms and farmers. Things continue to change. But here is the good news: the more things change the more they stay the same. We still have the farmer’s markets, fall agricultural fairs, farm gates and independent farmers a short distance outside of our cities.

Fortunately, the trend to buying and eating local is showing no signs of declining. Instead, the fruits of our local terroir have become a patriotic trademark of Ontario’s best tables.


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