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Local food at the source

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Recently I had the great good fortune to be invited to attend a weekend-long party hosted by friends who own a farm a few hours north of Toronto. We all camped out in a pasture at the back of the property, nestled between a picturesque woodlot and a gentle river inhabited by several industrious beavers. At night we made s'mores over the fire and watched movies on a giant sheet tied to the side of the food tent. And we ate. A lot.

Much of the food we had was either grown within a few kilometres of the farm, or made by neighbours and the local restaurant that catered the party, and believe me, we savoured every bite. You'd think that, being in the middle of farm country, local produce would be abundant, but that's not always the case.

I discovered that local restaurants buy their food supplies at the Toronto food terminal. Not because they want to, but because they have to get a special license to serve food produced in their own backyard. A cafe caught serving herbs and vegetables grown on the back patio might very well find itself fined out of existence if they haven't jumped through the costly and exhaustive bureaucratic hoops necessary to serve locally grown food.

I also discovered that every single grocery store within driving distance is owned by one company -- Sobey's. If the Sobey's monopoly doesn't carry an item you want (and I was told that many basic products aren't available, much to local residents' frustration), you pretty much have to drive into the city to get it. Most folks either do without or ask friends day-tripping to Toronto to do a bit of shopping for them. One thing that isn't in short supply is, oddly enough, ice cream.

Family-owned Chapman's is down the road, employing dozens of local residents and producing frozen treats for people all over Ontario. A few years ago, when the Chapman's factory burned down, the Chapman family asked their employees to wait until they could rebuild their facility, then promptly re-employed every former worker who was willing and able to return. Chapman's could have re-located to another existing factory, one closer to their mass market, which would've made good business sense, but they chose, instead, to stay local and rebuild from the ground up, keeping jobs in a community that desperately needs every employment opportunity it can get.

As we drove around, I did a survey of local products available for sale on farms and at roadside stands. Honey and maple syrup are popular, as are fresh eggs, herbs, fruit and, of course, corn (I ate so much corn that weekend I thought my teeth were going to fall out). Pretty much every town in the area has a seasonal farmers' market where you can buy locally produced sausage, pepperoni, baked goods, fruits and vegetables, and hand-sewn quilts to snuggle under all winter long. Unfortunately, once the growing season is over for perishable fruits and veggies, local residents are, once again, obliged to give their money to local Sobey's-owned grocery stores where produce is as fresh as their last trip to the Food Terminal.

We had an awesome time that weekend, eating fresh local food and meeting new people, but I left wondering why, in the midst of such diverse abundance and economic need, big business still has a stranglehold on food, where grocery stores and restaurants are forced to get their produce from hundreds of kilometres away instead of their own backyards. A shame, to say the least.

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