by SUSAN MANN
Local food champions are critically important to helping Ontario’s government increase the awareness, access and supply of local food in the province, according to the 2015/16 Local Food Report.
Nine local food champions are identified in the report Ontario Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Minister Jeff Leal released Monday in Toronto at the kickoff to Local Food Week, June 6-12. Many of the champions are not individuals.
By increasing awareness, access and the supply of local food, the Ontario government will help to continue growing the agri-food sector, the report says. But the province can’t do it alone. Ontario will keep relying on local food champions, partners, entrepreneurs and industry leaders to achieve its vision.
A local food champion can be anything from a program, an individual, a farm organization or a fund. Some of the champions named in the report include:
- Fresh from the Farm – a program for schools to raise funds by selling local carrots, apples, onions and potatoes. Since 2013, almost 300 schools have participated and distributed about 750,000 pounds of fresh Ontario fruits and vegetables. The schools have raised about $274,000 through the program and farmers have earned $382,000. The program is a partnership of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, the Ontario Education Ministry, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the Dietitians of Canada.
- Steffen Marin, who operates a food truck in Toronto, called Heirloom. It features exotic foods, such as duck perogies and eggplant dumplings, made with local ingredients.
- Farm and Food Care Ontario – This non-profit educational coalition runs the popular Breakfast on the Farm program. Participants are served a breakfast made with Ontario ingredients followed by a tour of the host farm. The organization is also a big supporter of Local Food Week.
- The Greenbelt Fund – Launched in 2010, the fund has invested in nearly 100 local food projects across Ontario. The provincial government has supported the fund since it began with $8.6 million. The 111 projects that funding supported has generated more than $110 million in local food sales, the report says.
The report says local food in Ontario is thriving with increased investment in production, expanded distribution and greater consumer awareness.
“It all adds up to a solid foundation that the local food sector can build upon in the months and years ahead,” the report says.
John Kelly, Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association executive vice president, says the association supports the government’s efforts to increase local consumption.
“That’s good for growers and it’s good for the population because they know where their food is coming from,” he says.
However, the report’s numbers showing an eight per cent increase in Ontario farmgate sales of field vegetables, to $405.6 million in 2015 compared to $375.6 million in 2014, can’t all be attributed to the government’s efforts to push local food sales.
“You’re likely seeing some impact of the value of the Canadian dollar” in the increased sales numbers, Kelly says. The higher American dollar compared to the Canadian currency “makes Ontario product more competitive.”
About the Fresh from the Farm program, Kelly agrees it’s a local food champion. The program is “great way for kids to learn about fresh produce and it’s also good for the growers because it’s all local product that goes out. It’s good for the schools too because they learn about where some of their food comes from.”
For farmgate greenhouse vegetable sales, the Local Food Report notes they increased almost two per cent to $829.8 million in 2015 from $812.4 million in 2014.
Rick Seguin, general manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, says growers’ sales are up, in part, because production has increased.
Another reason for the increase is marketing and promotion by the organization, provincial greenhouse marketers and Foodland Ontario. And consumer acceptance and awareness of the products’ quality continues to grow.
“I think the Foodland Ontario work has been quite helpful and consistent with the work we do ourselves,” he says.
Some products, such as cucumbers, are available almost year-round now, which is also helping to increase sales, Seguin adds.
Foodland Ontario is a consumer promotion program of the provincial agriculture ministry. It was established in 1977, according to the Foodland Ontario website.
The slogan it uses, “Good things Grow in Ontario,” and its symbol are widely recognized by shoppers. In a 2014 Foodland Ontario survey, 92 per cent of shoppers said they recognized and value the symbol. BF