Everything's coming up local
Food experts explore the local food movement's barriers and growth
As well-traveled peaches and world-weary potatoes find their way onto supermarket shelves, more and more people are growing concerned with how far their food has come.
Corporate Knights invited Lori Stahlbrand, founder and President of Local Food Plus, and Wayne Roberts, Project Coordinator for the Toronto Food Policy Council, out for lunch at the University of Toronto’s Gallery Grill, a restaurant known for its locally-minded menu. We spoke to them about the local food movement’s progress and appeal.
Stahlbrand explains that the organization she runs is not looking to restrict people’s diets.
“Our attitude at Local Food Plus is, let’s have as much local as we possibly can,” she says. “But we’re not saying, ‘You’re never going to eat another kiwi or banana again.’ Let’s at least push it as far as it can go.”
Stahlbrand’s spouse and dining partner is Wayne Roberts, who is taking a break from writing a book on global food issues.
Roberts believes the meteoric rise of global food prices is having an effect on local food as well.
“It’s been seen as yuppie issue, or a real foodie kind of issue. But it’s also a survival issue,” he says.
Why fly pears in from another country if they grow in your own province? The ecological impact of transporting food across continents is an important part of considering where you food comes from, but not the only one.
“A huge problem with food is that everyone sees it through a single lens,” Roberts says.
Stahlbrand and Roberts are on the same page when it comes to looking at food from a variety of angles.
“The environmental issues are not the only reason for local,” Stahlbrand explains. “There are social reasons as well. You want to preserve land for food security. You want to make sure the rural communities are not de-populated, that they have a tax base so they can have schools and hospitals. So [then], that land is in production and does not just become more urban sprawl.”
Roberts sees urban sprawl and the issue of food security and availability as inextricably connected issues.
“Greenbelts were a total no-brainer in Europe because all the countries had experienced famine,” he says. “Do you want to be dependent on a country four thousand miles away for all your food? No.”
The local food movement is not limited by a single-issue focus. It concerns itself with the future of food, the environment, and the social welfare of people employed in the agriculture business.
“If you start looking at it through other lenses – economic development, social cohesion, habitat preservation, and food security – local and sustainable food makes sense.” Stahlbrand suggests.
Peanut Butter and Jam
A quick look around the produce section of a supermarket might lead you to believe a schism has occurred among consumers who take their health and the environment seriously.
In our inaugural Green Grocers Survey (see page 14), supermarkets generally did not have produce that was both local and organic, despite having a selection of each. Even grocers that specialized in the large-scale sale of organic goods had very few items grown within the province.
Stahlbrand explains that in Ontario, 85 to 90 per cent of organic food comes from outside the province.
As consumers are increasingly asked to choose between local and organic, preference is becoming a matter of conscience. Which is worse for the planet: carbon emissions from transporting lettuce from California to Edmonton, or pesticides sprayed on corn grown 50 miles from the farmers’ market? But do we have to choose between the two? Is one option better for the environment than the other?
“We always make the argument that local alone without the sustainability component is not truly sustainable, and ‘sustainable’ food that comes from a great distance is not sustainable either…Like peanut butter and jam or macaroni and cheese, local and sustainable has to go together as a term,” Stahlbrand says.