Photo: flickr/Sustain Ontario

Amid the uproar of 350 enthusiastic local food advocates at Sustain Ontario’s Bring Food Home Conference, it was impossible to miss the massive river that is the borderline, separating Windsor from Detroit.

For foodies, Detroit represents a city abandoned by those in power that has risen from the economic ashes through community driven food initiatives. They are now a premier leader of urban agriculture, anti-racism in food systems and self-reliance in urban food.

On the other side of the river in Canada, we import much of the food that is eaten here, including many products that are grown in quantity in Canada and exported to the U.S. — called politely “redundant trade” rather than “bad idea.”

Local producers like to ask: “what if they closed the border?” We only have a few days of food available even in Toronto with its giant Ontario food terminal.

The burst of innovation and energy in the local food movement in Canada is a response to the real demands of food security. Green Party of Ontario leader Mike Schreiner exhorted us to remember that “a nation that cannot feed itself is less secure than a nation that can’t defend itself.”

The history that has led to this situation in Canada includes specific policies and funding from many levels of government and powerful lobbying efforts by large food corporations like Cargill, Monsanto and Weston (Loblaws). Banks as well have geared lending practices to reward ever larger farms that focus on commodity (corn-soy-wheat) production for export.

We may be witnesses to the decade when this tide turns: Ontario has recently approved both the Local Food Act and the Local Food Fund to stimulate local food economies and initiatives. The Local Food Act was given teeth  — that is, targets for procurement — through combined efforts and dialogue between NGOs like Foodshare and Sustain Ontario and those who ultimately decide policy.

At the same time, the Golden Horseshoe Food and Farming Alliance has mobilized a significant coalition of stakeholders to advocate for local food and farming from Toronto to the Niagara area. Talk of a National Food Strategy and Universal Student Nutrition Programs has become concrete and well beyond wishful thinking. Our Premier has chosen to take the Ministry of Agriculture and Food portfolio as her own rather than handing it to someone else as is usual. These are significant events. 

The Bring Food Home conference was testament to the wide range of local food and production initiatives that are beginning, thriving and expanding. The conference was organized by Sustain Ontario and its partners, and mobilized people from numerous sectors.

In many ways the most exciting and significant shift is the growing presence of food justice initiatives, and the growing response to systemic racism in the food system.

Many of us know that Canada has a significant food insecurity problem — over 12 per cent of us experience some level of food insecurity — but we may forget to ask “who is hungry?” Or, further: “Who represents us in positions of power and decision-making in the food system?”

One participant cogently asked the assembled politicians in plenary what they would do about the fact that aboriginal children are disproportionately among the ranks of the hungry while children in general are disproportionately represented — one in every six children that is — among the hungry. A panel on diversity reminded us that it is not only communities of colour that suffer the most, and are least likely to achieve positions of authority in the food system, but that there is a range of oppressions and solutions that vary by community.

Jackie Fletcher, an Elder and Adult Educator from the Missanabie Cree First Nation, pointed out to me that “we are achieving our sovereignty through food.” She reports that diverse initiatives to reclaim local food systems are finding strong support across indigenous communities.

The True North Community Co-operative, after being refused Canadian government funding for their project, has built a successful blueberry co-op from community finances. Members from northern communities harvest food from the forest and land for the co-op. The co-op offers the products locally and distributes to more southern communities.

Malik Yakini from the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network reports that the food systems turned around in Detroit when they decided that, with the black community in the majority, food solutions should be owned and operated by the black community. They made this so, from accessing food to accessing positions of power and decision-making.

At the core, the most resilient local food movements rely on principles of self-reliance and self-determination.

As many community activists said at the conference, we don’t want just consultation, we want a guarantee and plan that our voices are an integral part of any project and will have a significant impact.

This is of course the familiar demand for real democracy. The local food movement has begun to embed that demand across numerous and diverse initiatives, from food justice in urban agriculture to community freezers for sharing the hunt to hiring practices in NGOs.

Author’s note: many of the sessions were recorded and presentations will be made available through Sustain Ontario.

Sally Miller (MA/PhD, MES) has worked for over 20 years as a researcher, manager and developer for sustainable food and farming initiatives. She is the author of Edible Action: Food Activism and Alternative Economics.

Photo: flickr/Sustain Ontario