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The Problem of Exclusion

I’ve been meaning to address the exclusionary nature of current local and organic food options for some time now, but it is such a large and complex topic that I have been hesitant to get started.  I had a fire lit under me this morning while reading the London Free Press, so here I go.  There are two significant roadblocks to eating local, and especially with eating organic: 1) it is hard to find, and 2) when you do find it, it is typically more expensive.  As a result, eating this healthy food is typically a privilege of the wealthy.  This is a very serious problem that needs to be addressed, with solutions incorporated into any new local food systems that are being established.

After months of research and driving around the countryside, I have been able to establish reliable sources of less expensive predominantly organic local food.  Most people I know, however, don’t have this kind of time, and as a result either dismiss the idea completely as a “I’d love to, but..” or buy organic at Loblaws (another topic which I need to address soon).  One of the driving forces behind my setting up this blog was the desire to share what I have come up with, in hopes of assisting those who don’t have the luxury of making a food search like this their full-time job more easily find healthy local, yet affordable food. 

Because local organic food is in such high demand, an increasing proportion of it is being bought up by restaurants and high-end specialty stores.  Indeed, I have been told that in Prince Edward County (Picton area), 100% of what is produced on their local organic farms is sold to restaurants.  And a large portion of London area organics is shipped to Toronto and sold there instead (I am still wondering how this is possible).

I think it is terrific that organic farmers are finding such demand for their products and certainly would not want to see this change.  I also think that it is important to pay a fair price for this produce, and that price will be higher than what you find at Loblaws.  Growing food in a healthy, sustainable manner is more expensive in terms of short-term cash output, but much, much cheaper than what we (and our children and grand-children and…) will be paying in the long run for industrial food, in terms of ecological damage to the planet.

I am therefore not advocating paying less for organics, or preventing people from selling to a booming market.  Not at all.  In fact we need to pay more for locally grown organic products to help our farmers stay on their land, and to encourage new farmers to take up the calling.  The  main reason for the large portion of organics ending up in restaurants is that there simply aren’t enough people growing this way, the demand now far out strips supply and naturally it gets sold to the highest (and most reliable) bidder.  

Nevertheless, there must be some way to make this good food accessible to people with lower incomes.  For example, food stamps could be issued for use at local markets, and subsidized good food boxes put together for distribution to low income families so that both farmer and eater benefit.  And there are indeed many initiatives out there.  As I learn more about them, I will write more and post the website of these groups and organizations.  As such, please consider this an introduction – the mere tip of the iceberg – to a very important topic surrounding local food. 

So what did I find in the London Free Press this morning that has inspired me to finally address this today?  Two events the weekly event section. 

The first is Seedy Saturday – a seed growing and organic gardening day-long seminar – one of the few such events to be held in Southwestern Ontario this year.  I posted the details in my events section, but wanted to highlight that this 5-hour event has an admission fee of only $3.  Three dollars doesn’t even buy you a coffee these days.  Clearly this event is set up to reach as many as possible, regardless of income, and encourage people to grow their own food in an eco-friendly way.

Also tomorrow, Museum London is co-hosting an event with Slow Food London called “The Art of Eating.”  This event is described as offering “A five-course tasting menu prepared by some of London’s best chefs, highlighting the growing trend toward eating and enjoying local and regional cuisines, using fresh seasonal ingredients.  Now I love the idea of Slow Food, and I think it’s great that they are offering opportunities like this for people to sample haute cuisine with a focus on local.  But the cost of this dinner is $80!!  Um, yet another Slow Food event that I am not able to attend because of the exorbitant price.  On my student budget, I can’t even consider spending eighty dollars on a single meal – this is nearly as much as I spend to feed my whole family for a week.  Clearly this event is aimed at convincing the wealthy to eat local.  

I concede that not offering events like this would be excluding a different social class, which I suppose makes my critique hypocritical.  But the dominant demographic consuming local food are those from the upper-middle class (and young families with newborns).  There have been a number of “local food” events in the London area over the past 6 months that I could not even consider attending because of cost.  

Maybe these fancy events are reaching people in important decision making positions.  Perhaps they are serving to help those in power  support local food.  And as such, I am not saying these events should not take place.  By all means, go ahead.  But what we really need is more Seedy Saturdays, or local food summits like that put on by Food Down The Road last November in Kingston (a 2-day event that cost $20 to attend including fabulous all-local, organic meals, sponsored by the Ontario branch of the National Farmers Union).  This is the way to bring people together – from all demographics – and raise not only awareness around local food but inspire people to get involved and take action.

 Stay tune for more on this topic… I’m only just getting started. 

 

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7 Responses

  1. Just a couple of quick comments…

    I have been reading your blog for a bit now and have been wondering if you (and your readers) have much experience with Farmers themselves, organic or not, and/or farm organizations?

    And also, do you know/have you done much research into the fact that Canadians spend less of of their total disposable income on food and have the cheapest food of almost all countries worldwide?

    I work for a company working on Traceability solutions within Ontario as well as the Canadian context, which is getting more and more entwined with Eat Local campaigns as a way for farmers to gain market share as well as profits from what they produce.

    Sara

  2. Sara – thank you for taking the time to read my blog and for posting your comments. Thank you also for bringing your company to my attention. What an interesting initiative. I read through your website but couldn’t find where it discusses the criteria for inclusion in your database. Are all farms to be included, or only ones above a certain size or production volume?

    To answer your questions, I do interact a fair bit with farmers both through my research and my food purchasing, most of which is directly from producers either at markets or farmgates. As for farming organizations, I’ve interacted with the National Farmers Union and the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, but also have met with many others at trade shows, conferences, food summits and conventions. If there are any you think I should be looking into, I would be happy for the referral.

    As for our cheap food, I am indeed aware that Canadians spend very little money on what we eat – less than 10% of their income I believe. This is a fundamental problem, in my opinion, as to keep our farmers farming – and to attract new people to food production – we need to be willing to pay a fair price. This of course will be difficult for many to accept, especially when we can shop at Walmart and get very cheap bulk food. We have become accustomed to paying very little to keep ourselves fed and would prefer to spend their money elsewhere. As prices of food that has been transported long distances continues to go up, hopefully this will change.

  3. Hello

    are you still looking for an answer to your compost overflow? Rosemary and Thyme our Berkshire pigs would love to help you out, depending on location.

    Sarah

  4. To answer your question, our initiative will take into effect all farm related locations (not just farms, but processors and every other location that is part of the whole agri-food chain) in Ontario and will be primarily used for emergency management.

    We are an industry led initiatve and are working with all kinds of commodity and government groups to gain access to the location information we need to complete our Agri-food Premises Registry.

    I would suggest that you check into the Ontario Federation of Agriculture as well as the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario for a start as they are the other General Farm Organizations (GFO’s)in the province along with the NFU. There are also commodity groups such as the Ontario Cattlemen’s Association, Ontario Pork, The Ontario Fruit and Veggie Growers etc that would be great resources for you, each with its own initiatives going on.

    Also, have you heard of Local Food Plus(LFP)? They are a great company out of Toronto working on Local Food and Organic food certification.

  5. Hi Sarah – I actually managed to cram most of my compost into my composter and the warmer weather has helped a little of late. But I would LOVE to share any compost overflow I have in the future with your pigs if you are close enough for that to work. What a delightful solution to my compost problem. Are you close to London? What do they eat?

  6. Sara – thanks for providing more information about your company. I’ve read cases of food emergencies – such as outbreaks of disease – where a lot of animals and crops were destroyed because it wasn’t possible to know exactly where the problem was located. I assume that the system you are establishing would help prevent this needless waste and slaughter and help pinpoint exactly what is going on, which in turn would help with management and resolution. Am I correct?

    I am indeed familiar with Local Food Plus – they are doing some really interesting and progressive work. Perhaps I’ll write a little entry on them to share with others what is going on with LFP!

    Thanks also for suggesting the resources you listed – this is very helpful and much appreciated!

  7. Yes you are correct, that is exactly what the system we are building is all about.

    If you want to know more, please feel free to visit our website at http://www.ontraceagrifood.com we will be unveiling our newly designed website in the next few weeks!

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