I recently attended the Bring Food Home Conference. A combined effort of various groups dedicated to a more cohesive local food system for Ontario, the gathering takes place every two years. Held at Ottawa U, the biggest hurdle was navigating the construction.
Thursday was dedicated to area tours. With four to choose from, I chose the one that ended with Top Shelf Distillers. Also with stops at Just Food’s Farm, North House Foods and the Two Rivers Food Hub, each stop presented tangible manifestations of ideas that have been floating around my head for quite some time.
Next day I biked with a mere helmet through the never-ending construction zone to find the opening ceremony. After a smudging from a local indigenous leader, a string of people scolded an absent recipient for their lack of attention to local food. To balance out the scolding, we were treated to almost a dozen local food success stories. All were fascinating.
After a (very) late lunch, the crowd broke out into workshops. I started out with a talk on provincial food regulations. A group of middle aged OMAFRA (Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs) staff were on deck to answer all our queries on what can and cannot be done on the road to culinary success. I learned what we were doing wrong at the Market, picked out what seemed the most threatening and dug a bit deeper.
Although quite knowledgeable, the OMAFRA staff suffered from the big picture blindness that comes with bureaucratic silos. Regardless, the session was very helpful.
The second session included three businesses that were making things happen in the Toronto area and Bruce Peninsula. There was success in their presentations, but it was overwhelmed by a tone of frustration. It was the same frustration that drove the early morning scolding. In fact, that tone kinda loomed over the whole conference.
Although Ontario has made decent strides in its local food economy, it is still being challenged by imports and quelled by lack of government support. There is a crowd supporting local. Many of you are reading this. However, to have a truly local movement, government must get more involved. There are groups such as the Green Belt Foundation that support a few innovative projects in the food industry, but they are only one body.
Businesses are not innocent. The claim of being ‘too busy’ should not preclude an owner from looking at collaborations towards a stronger front. A rising tide lifts all boats. A couple of hours at an association meeting is time well spent (provided it has good leadership).
Ontario has the ingredients of a truly self-sufficient food industry. There is no need to shut out imports, but the field must be levelled. Food labelling must be revisited, traceability made a reality and regulations reassessed. These are the policies. As was reinforced at the Bring Food Home Conference, it will still take a lot of cooperation from the industry to get us to where consumers need us.
In my next piece, I’ll take this to an even more local level and talk about Ottawa and Beechwood Village