“Local food” is a term that may grow

As printed in the Guelph Mercury, June 25 2009:

With the advent of summer, local food is on everyone’s lips — and increasingly also in their shopping baskets. It certainly is the trend of the moment, and one farmers are embracing wholeheartedly. So are communities that are launching farmers markets, new stores that are focusing on selling local products, and media who are profiling farmers and stores.

But what does “local” mean? From a specific region? Grown in Ontario? Product of Canada? Or simply from within a 100-mile radius, like the now infamous diet of the same name?

I’ve just spent some time in Switzerland, where origin plays a huge part in food marketing. Anything made or grown or produced in the country proudly bears a flag and/or some sort of “Swiss” or “product of Switzerland” label. This is especially prominent with fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy, but also evident on processed products.

Of course, the question of defining local is less of an issue in a country that is roughly the size of southwestern Ontario. But here at home, from everything I’ve seen, a uniform definition doesn’t seem to exist.

Foodland Ontario, our foremost cheerleader of local food, completed extensive consumer research on food origins and labelling in 2008. Their definition of a product of Ontario varies depending on the product. For example, eggs must be laid on an Ontario egg farm but milk or cheese can contain up to 10 per cent product from other provinces.

Local Food Plus is another advocate of local food. The organization supports local sustainable food systems by certifying farmers and processors and linking them with local purchasers. For them, local products are ones that are produced, processed and distributed in the province in which they are consumed — in this case, Ontario.

A local food store in our region has a stricter definition, sourcing products from Waterloo Region and Wellington County wherever possible. Only if these aren’t available do they extend their focus to include other parts of Ontario, then other Canadian provinces depending on what’s in season.

For some store owners and consumers, it’s more about the relationship they have with the farmers who grew the product. Knowing where it’s coming from is a comfort to many who are distrustful of our larger food system or environmentally uncomfortable with the idea of transporting food for thousands of miles before it hits a dinner table. For example, Culinarium, a Toronto store specializing in local food, includes personal relationships with all of its suppliers, growers and farmers as a key to its definition of local.

I’ve also been told local, in some instances, can serve as a substitute for “organic.” Many people believe that organic is somehow better or provides them with benefits that so-called regular food doesn’t. But upon closer questioning, what they’re really after is knowing how the food was produced or assurances that their food choices won’t have harmful effects on animals or the environment.

Twitter users have varying definitions of what local is as well. One respondent defined local as Canadian, but added that she tries to buy Wellington County products wherever possible. In a similar vein, a Cambridge resident indicated local meant anything produced within a 25 or 50 kilometre radius. Another consumer supplemented her definition of a three-hour drive by adding that for her, local also indicated production that is family-owned and not part of a larger food conglomerate.

So when it comes to defining local food, it seems that while geography is important, local is as much about information, about people and about trust between farmer and consumer.

And that’s where we in Ontario are lucky. Our climate allows us to enjoy an incredible array of high quality Ontario-grown foods, and we are fortunate to have a strong farming community that is willing to grow it for us.

Here’s hoping the trend of the moment evolves into a permanent and sustainable part of our eating lives.


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