Building and Maintaining a Local Food System Not Only Makes Sense – It’s A Central Building Block Of Sustainability
by Paul Rellinger
All too often lost in the conversation around drivers of local economies is the one thing we all need, purchase and, quite literally, consume: food.
For sure, a vibrant manufacturing base is key to a strong local economy. Ditto for active entrepreneurship and related small business enterprises. However, our collective sourcing and purchasing of locally produced food, both as individuals and as restaurant and food retail operators, keeps dollars where they have the most impact – right here, right now, undeniably adding greatly to the region’s economic health.
That said, the benefit of spending food dollars on local products extends in a broader sense to reducing the impact on our environmental footprint. Simply put, much shorter drives from farmers’ fields and small food and beverage producers to local restaurants and stores reduces emissions.
And then there’s the considerable benefit to the local tourism industry. With more and more visitors to the region looking for immersive and unique food experiences, locally-produced food has an appeal all of its own, allowing for the provision of ‘signature’ menu offerings that are homegrown in every sense of the word.
Internationally acclaimed and globally trained Indigenous chef Billy Alexander says catering to food experience-seeking visitors is reflective of a rapidly growing trend.
“In the past, tourism has been viewed as ‘Hey, I’m going to book events and I’m going to eat food along the way,’” says Alexander.
“Now food and drink isn’t what you do on the way to the event. Food and drink is the event. Food and drink is the tourism experience. People are booking trips based on food and beverage experiences, and then looking for activities to do.”Billy Alexander, Culinary Tourism Alliance
“Now food and drink isn’t what you do on the way to the event. Food and drink is the event. Food and drink is the tourism experience. People are booking trips based on food and beverage experiences and then looking for activities to do.”
Alexander has made it his mission to promote the nurturing and promotion of the building and supporting of local food systems, hammering home the economic benefits of doing so.
As Director of Programs for the Culinary Tourism Alliance that, since 2005, has worked with communities including Peterborough & the Kawarthas to grow food tourism by leveraging the history, heritage, and culture associated with food and drink, Alexander is an exuberant advocate of the importance, and value, of connections between food providers and the food sources right in their own backyard. His unbridled passion for that ideal was fully evident in November 2022 when he addressed a group of chefs, caterers, restauranteurs and food retailers at a networking event aimed at supporting the development of a strong local food system hosted by Kawartha Choice FarmFresh, a partnership of Peterborough & the Kawarthas Economic Development (PKED) and the City of Kawartha Lakes Economic Development.
“If every household in Ontario spent $10 a week on local food, that would equate to $2.7 billion in extra revenue and 12,000 new jobs paying $5,000 higher than the Ontario median wage,” notes Alexander.
“When you spend a local dollar, 100 percent of that dollar stays in the community. By contrast, upwards of 70 percent of an imported dollar leaves the community. When we look at a local food system in terms of what’s happening with staffing challenges – not having people to work, whether that’s on the restaurant side, the producer side, the beverage side, or the tourism side, what could you do with 70 percent more money staying in the local economy? Attract more workers? Pay better wages? Offer benefits?
Key, explains Alexander, is understanding that local food systems are based on, and subsequently thrive, relationships started and nurtured to the full benefit of all involved.
“When you are building a local food system, you know the producer of your foods, or you know where they come from. There’s an implied, let alone a literal, relationship built where your successes are linked together. Whenever you buy local products, it’s not simply a transactional thing. Success lies in the support of the community.”
Connection is a term used ad nauseam in the promotion of relationships that benefits both supplier and provider. There’s a reason for that. From connection all good things come, notably trust.
Kawartha Choice FarmFresh, an economic development program that was established independently in the City of Kawartha Lakes and the Peterborough region in 2003 before being merged into one program in 2007, provides a hub for its members – farmers, food producers, restaurants, farmers’ markets, and retailers – to network and work together on initiatives aimed at strengthening the region’s food economy. The goal is simple but focused – help consumers in the sourcing of local foods and related experiences.
Gabi Dragomir, rural economic development officer with PKED, says the value of the Kawartha Choice FarmFresh initiative lies in the provision of “a lot of feedback on how we can better support” those not only involved in local food production but also those who want to bring more local food products to their customers.
A priority moving forward, she says, will be a focus on training program members on how they can better market what they have to offer.
“They have the opportunity to manage their own profile on the website (www.kawarthachoice.com)…make sure your profile is up to date or, if you’re having an event, make sure it’s on there,” she says.
Kelly Maloney, Dragomir’s Kawartha Choice FarmFresh colleague in the City of Kawartha Lakes where she serves as the economic development officer focused on agriculture, says those food providers who have established relationships with local providers are “the tip of the iceberg” in terms of the potential end game.
“Some businesses love the idea of supporting local, wanting to keep the dollars circulating in our community, but there is a learning curve,” says Maloney.
“In most cases, there’s going to be a change in their logistics. It’s one thing to pick up the phone or log onto (the website of) a big supplier, place your order and it shows up the next day at eight in the morning. Those local relationships aren’t as simple to establish. On both sides (providers and producers), they have to be prepared to stretch themselves outside their comfort zone.”
“The concept of buying local is an easy concept to sell. It’s the logistics piece that they really have to put an effort into. Sometimes it’s a change up of their whole menu. Sometimes it can fit into their current menu on a seasonal basis. For retail, there’s such a demand for shelf space. You can’t put local food on the shelf and expect it to fly off the shelf. There has to be some level of marketing dedicated to that.”
What can’t be disputed is the positive experience of those who are purchasing local food products and integrating them into their offerings for customers.
At Black Honey in downtown Peterborough, owner and operator Lisa Dixon, who has habitually augmented her café’s menu with locally produced food and ingredients, says such transactions are “inspirational when you meet a farmer.”
When you tour a farm, you’re blown away by so much intelligence, concepts of building and projecting and thinking about what the next step is. You’re looking at growth all the time. But my favourite part is, as a chef, everything tastes way better when you buy local.Chef Lisa Dixon, BlackHoney
“When you tour a farm, you’re blown away by so much intelligence, concepts of building and projecting and thinking about what the next step is. You’re looking at growth all the time. But my favourite part is, as a chef, everything tastes way better when you buy local.”
For her part, Nicki Dedes, an owner and operator of the Olympia Restaurant in downtown Lindsay, says buying local enhances the ‘mom-and-pop’ image the business projects.
“We’re bringing more authenticity to what we do because it’s real people behind our name,” she says.
On the supplier side of things is Jason McIntosh of McIntosh Fresh Frozen Beef, who has found a local market for his products via partnerships with a number of retail outlets in the Kawarthas. He describes those relationships and resulting opportunities to sell his products as his “bread and butter,” preferring that as opposed to having consumers come directly to his farm to purchase beef.
Encouraging restaurants and other prepared food providers, and grocery stores, chain or independent, to think local and then act in terms of purchasing is only part of the equation for Alexander.
As leader of a Culinary Tourism Alliance program called Feast ON that certifies businesses based on the percentage of local food choices being offered, he implores consumers to ask questions.
“More people actually think they’re supporting local more than they are,” he says.
“There’s a big difference between local and locality. Locality is proximity-based. Local is produced in Ontario…in the region where you live. People will say ‘I’m going to my community’s farmers’ market three kilometres away, I’m going to my community store, so therefore I must be purchasing local. ’ Well, there’s no qualification going into proving those items are local.”
“We assume that because things are part of our community, they are representative of our community. That’s not true. We should be asking questions. Where does your food come from? Does local food cost more money than imported food? Yes, sometimes it does, but if I told you that every local dollar you spent is worth $3, would you ever not spend a local dollar? We need to start marketing the importance of the local dollar differently in terms of the impact it has so people can get behind why supporting local is so important: Because it puts more money back in your pocket.”
We assume that because things are part of our community, they are representative of our community. That’s not true. We should be asking questions. Where does your food come from? Does local food cost more money than imported food? Yes, sometimes it does, but if I told you that every local dollar you spent is worth $3, would you ever not spend a local dollar? We need to start marketing the importance of the local dollar differently in terms of the impact it has so people can get behind why supporting local is so important: Because it puts more money back in your pocket.Billy Alexander, Culinary Tourism Alliance