Thoughts on a very different holiday season during pandemic

When the calendar moves to December, I start thinking about all my favorite holiday foods and what makes them special. Our first Holiday Season with COVID forces us really examine the best way to continue important food traditions and customs and add in some new twists. Taking a closer look at alternative options for sharing food this year, that nevertheless allow us to celebrate our food traditions, and keep us connected, might just allow us to continue the Holiday Spirit.

The big dinners with loads of friends and relatives snuggled into the host’s home for hours of talking, laughing, and of course eating, is not ok, and personally I’m very sad about that. Buffet style food sharing has been identified as a higher risk activity. Hosting or participating in in-person get togethers needs to be avoided. Alternatives, however, can be put in place so we can still take pleasure in our festivities.  Here are some suggestions to get you thinking of how to connect and find ways to celebrate the season.

Sharing food is really important to us.  The smells and taste of something special you only eat once a year with your family makes you feel grounded and provides a deep sense of belonging.  This year, try email, text or Facebook messaging an electronic copy of a special recipe as a way to share with each other.  You could also take a picture of an old recipe and share the photo.  This lets you make something you know you like to eat while promoting a feeling of togetherness, which we are all craving for this holiday season. It is a sad thing to lose a family meal but being able to recreate a tasty memory with an electronic copy of a recipe, is a convenient way to keep a tradition alive or share in someone else’s tradition.

Baking together over a Zoom call or FaceTime could be a way to connect with loved ones near and far. I have family in Northern Ontario and on the West Coast and I plan to do this with them this holiday season. Even at the best of times we rarely spend the holidays together, but with COVID we have no choice but to hold a virtual ‘get together’. The ‘preparation’ for this is important.  Try to create a checklist to decide 1) what video platform to use 2) how to set it up on your device 3) what food to make 4) what ingredients to purchase 5) what equipment is required,  and of course 6) what day/time to start. Perhaps setting a time limit (goal) will be helpful. For the kids in the family, or those with shorter attention spans, a more specific video call for something like cookie decorating would be fun.

Enjoying a meal together while being apart, by cooking the same dinner menu or ordering from the same restaurant or caterer, is bonding. The experience can be shared through any number of electronic platforms or even simply through a speaker phone call. The dinner conversation, the grace, the cheers, the airing of grievances, the comradery can all be enjoyed as usual, but in a slightly modified way.  If you have a large group, > 30 people, our community partner Growing Chefs! have a Holiday meal available to order for pickup, and the use of local ingredient to make this delicious sounding meal is definitely worth a look, https://growingchefsontario.ca/blog/Holiday2020.

Consider food gifts from your favorite bakery or specialty food shop. Try putting together a food hamper or gift box with a personal theme, to create a sincere and thoughtful gift.  There is a multitude of food subscription boxes to order online with offerings like, tea, hot sauce, cheese and snacks. My personal preference is the gift of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription, a gift that keeps on giving and a great introduction to the concept. Not to mention, it’s a conversation starter to bring awareness to our local foods.  Of course, who would not love an e-gift of a take way meal from a local restaurant.

My plans for this holiday season are simple, I will be with the people I live with (husband and kids) and have some meals with my mother.  I will not be hosting an event or sharing food, but I will be virtually present and as usually cooking and eating, just a little bit too much.  I plan to make a video of myself baking a mincemeat pie, which I will send it to my father in Alberta.  I will be feeding the birds and squirrels outside my kitchen window, because I like to watch them eat.  I will have a fruit and vegetable advent where we will eat something different every day in December. Lastly, I will go through all my food cupboards and check expiration dates and use things up in my Christmas menus.

However, we choose to recognize our first COVID Holiday Season, remember to shop and support local as much as possible. Get outside as you are able, to be active and enjoy the scenes.  Most of all enjoy preparing and eating the traditional holiday foods you know and love. Reach out to loved ones by phone, text, or video call to let them know you care.  We may discover that the Holiday Spirit lives in places we did not expect.

— Susan Smith

Call for Applications: Council Members for 2021-23

Are you interested in being a part of food system change in Middlesex London? Then the Middlesex London Food Policy Council needs you.

The Middlesex London Food Policy Council was established in November 2017.

We are a group of dedicated volunteers working towards a local, sustainable and accessible food system in London and Middlesex County.

We are now seeking applications for the January 2021 – December 2023 term.

The role description and application form can be downloaded here. Please direct any queries to info@mlfpc.ca

Please share this email with your networks or individuals who you think might be interested.

Applications are due by November 15, 2020

 

Benjamin Hill, Chair

Middlesex London Food Policy Council

https://mlfpc.ca/

 

London-Middlesex Restaurant Support Fund: Middlesex Economic Development Spotlight

The London-Middlesex Restaurant Support Fund was formed to make grants of $1000 to eligible, independent restaurant operators to support their businesses to open or remain open amid the challenges of COVID-19. It is a partnership of McCormick Canada and Club House for Chefs, the Middlesex London Food Policy Council, Pillar Nonprofit Network, rTraction, and the Western Fair District with promotional support from Middlesex County.

Cara Finn, Director of Economic Development for Middlesex County, is interested in helping those whose first thoughts are not about themselves, but about how they can help their communities and neighbors. When asked why she thought it was important to support local restaurants during this time, Cara responded,  “These people work so hard, and I can tell you within the first couple of days of COVID-19, many of the questions I had from restaurant operators in the county and in London was not, ‘what are we going to do’ or you know, ‘my business is going to fail’, it was ‘how can we help?’, ‘how can we help our staff that we may have to do temporary layoffs for?’, ‘how can we connect with other employers in the region such as those in agriculture that are maybe ramping up their season while we have to go into this period of flux and pivoting?’ It was incredible.” 

We’ve all seen local restaurateurs stepping up to feed communities in times of need and support their neighbors. Whenever there is a natural disaster or local tragedy, there is always a local restaurant somewhere handing out meals to first responders and victims, and a donation box to support victims right next to the cash register. Local, independent restaurants are often the first to step forward to help, and now they are the ones in need.  Says Cara, “They are so deserving of our support.” We couldn’t agree more. It’s great to hear of the sense of community that occurs in this industry, and wonderful to hear that the County of Middlesex is willing to help and contribute to the efforts of the support fund trying to give back to our local restaurants..

Cara also emphasized that the fund helps our local restaurants by validating the hard work that they are doing. Most are one the front lines as essential food services keeping essential workers fed and healthy as they have been working across our communities, and satisfying residents looking for a little relief from the tedium of home isolation and their own labors in the kitchen. Being ready to safely receive us during the pandemic has required considerable effort and expense on the part of restaurants pivoting to carry-out and patio-only service. “It validates the effort that they’ve placed into making sure that we’re taken care of, making sure that we are healthy and safe, and allows them just a small smidgen of financial backing to be able to do what they’re already doing, which is go one step beyond.”

Creative solutions are continuing to emerge in Middlesex County, such as the four additional pop-up patios in the Strathroy downtown core that allow for more dining space, and the extension of market seasons such as with the Komoka Market, which will now be able to extend its season until Thanksgiving.

Middlesex County, together with the Middlesex London Health Unit, Middlesex London Food Policy Council, Middlesex Federation of Agriculture, Tourism Industry Association of Ontario, and with help from the Federal Economic Development Association of Southern Ontario, recently launched the Middlesex County Culinary Guide, which is available online at https://www.visitmiddlesex.ca/plan/maps-guides/middlesex-county-culinary-guide, as well as in print this week. The Middlesex County Culinary Guide showcases restaurants in the Middlesex community, along with markets, and food producers, that all work together to make things happen for our community. With great, local restaurants in every community in the London Middlesex area, there are lots of options. –dDrop by any of them, say “thanks for being there for the community,” and enjoy some carry-out or al fresco dining.

With one last message for our local restaurants, Cara gives voice to the appreciation we all hold for our hard-working restaurant community. “At Middlesex County our whole message for economic development is really one of appreciating the businesses that invest in our community. That’s the message I want to give people. It doesn’t go unnoticed. We know how hard people are working. We know the stresses, both financial and emotional, that are happening for each of us as individuals, but then add that tenfold if you are trying to operate a business in this climate. The main message is that we see them, we know how much work they have put into it, and we’re here to support them.” 

 

Thank you Cara Finn and Middlesex County!

The Global Food Supply Chain is Already Morphing

Given the numerous and complex challenges facing its flow of operation, the global food supply chain has been able to hold up surprisingly well in these last six months of the pandemic. Two key points are vital here, however.

To begin with, it’s weakening at some key pressure points in the delivery and supply system in ways that don’t offer an easy fix. Farm workers in developing regions of the globe, where vast amounts of our food originate, have fallen victim to COVID-19 and the spread among them continues. Transport centres – docks, ports, airstrips, train and road depots – have fallen prey to giant shutdowns as prevention measures are implemented to contain the spread of the virus. Similar problems confront the regional transport centres in the Europe and North America.

And then there is the point researchers and developers have been warning about for decades: the global supply chain is massively wasteful, environmentally threatening, and guilty of poor labour practices, including poor pay. But food gets delivered fairly cheaply to our communities, prompting little thought, or challenge, to getting mass appeal for developing a more sustainable and local alternative.

COVID is now changing all of that and it’s bringing about levels of innovation and collaboration that can be revolutionary should they survive the pandemic era.

We recall the early days of the virus, where consumers hoarded what they could acquire, leaving shelves empty and the on-demand supply in serious jeopardy. While Canada fared moderately well in this area, we all remember the lines at food banks and relief centres from around the world. The strains on grocery stores and markets were enormous. Food is a necessity and essential to our survival, and because of that it places grocery employees in the crosshairs of virus spread.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that such challenges only arrived with the pandemic; in reality, they were already the pressure points of a global food system that was sagging under its own inefficiencies. What COVID has done is brought these issues out into the open and caused many to seek for alternative solutions to the one-size-fits-all practice that has been blindly accepted for decades.

And as a result, practices are slowly changing. We are seeing cooler doors in grocery stores now triggered by foot pedals instead of pulled by handles, thereby limiting physical contact. The flow around some stores is looking more like a traffic grid than the hodgepodge that existed previously, making social distance easier to achieve.  “Everything is on the table for reassessment,” one Loblaws executive told us recently and it remains unsure what the future of grocery stores will entail.  How will they mitigate risk, flow people, keep their food decontaminated, insure the protection of their staffs just as much as their customers? Will they turn more readily to a pick-up model, where customers order their supplies online and then slip through grocery store parking lots to pick up their supplies without ever leaving their cars? This is already being implemented in some locations.

That’s just what’s happening within stores; what’s taking place beyond them is even more pattern-breaking. Delivery of food supplies is going through the roof, including from restaurants. Thousands are purchasing directly from farms in a pattern that avoids excessive social contact but also gets buyers all that much closer to fresh food.

This might appear temporary, but the longer it continues the more it makes sense. It’s not all just about convenience and price, but about safety, food sourcing, the pursuit of local solutions, and the desire to fight climate change along the way. Previously, food was part of a giant system of transportation and convenience; it is now morphing into something more organic, community-minded, safer, more environmentally minded, and, above all, healthier.

What we assumed would be a temporary adaptation to survive a crisis is rapidly on its way to becoming something transformative. We are all understanding more clearly that COVID won’t be our last pandemic – we have already experienced over 20 in the last three decades – and that we can’t just kept altering our lifestyles every few years to adapt in the moment. These new practices aren’t about surviving pandemics but actually stopping them, through better growing, producing, selling and consumption practices.

All this tends to point to a future of systems change. There will be huge effects on the industry and some components may not survive. Consumers will have to think more about how they go about acquiring their food. In the end, however, these changes could put a serious dent in climate change, wasted food, more conscientious citizenry, and governments that develop policies that are better than just bottom-line advantages.  In the next blog, we’ll take a look at what that might look like.

Glen Pearson

Co-Executive Director

London Food Bank

Thinking Differently About Food

For decades activists for a local fresh food revolution have pressed decision makers, , businesses, marketers and consumers to focus more on the need to look closer to home for food supply chains.  It’s been a tough slog, full of ups and downs, as they have always been in competition with a global supply chain that offered variety, availability and consistency, at the same time as it prompted environmental damage, demeaning wages and monopolized service.

The arrival of the Coronavirus has changed all that, as people begin looking closer to home for their food as a way of fending off the threat of the pandemic. It’s no accident that demand for locally grown food has skyrocketed, nor that the supply of growing amenities like greenhouses are backlogged. It turns out that all those ideas furthered by the “grow and purchase local” movement had serious merit after all and communities are in the process of catching up.

In a time when individuals and families face emerging insecurity about the things that they touch and the food they eat, there is a growing concern about digesting food from thousands of miles away from a grouping of just a few food conglomerates that we don’t really know or see. It’s a valid concern, and despite the reality that the global food supply chain has proved remarkably durable despite the pandemic, customers increasingly look for food that is more natural, fresh and local.

It turns out that we can visualize that transformation by looking at our own communities. In London, Ontario, as an example, local grocery stores are cooperating with City Hall in diverting tens of thousands of pounds of fresh produce each month from the landfills and getting them, still fresh, to the local food bank for distribution to needy families. It’s an environmental measure that has real social consequence.

Farmers and growers in the region are taking part in a federal COVID initiative called the Surplus Food Rescue Program, in part to ensure that more locally grown foodstuffs get into the communities that require them in a time of emergency.

Such measures are urgently required, but there are more long-lasting activities getting new opportunities and exposure that are destined to continue long after the pandemic has receded into the history books. Things like urban gardens, food trees, even a large greenhouse being constructed at the back of the food bank, are signs of things that will endure past COVID.

The transformation of the farming industry in recent decades has led to the closing of thousands of farms in the global race for the bottom line. That has left some growers and producers well-positioned to take advantage of such monopolies but the majority of farmers have openly expressed their desire to get back to the practice of supplying the communities around them and being part of healthy living as opposed to just cheap goods. And they do have an advantage on their side at present, as this pandemic has proved the point that local has better stability, knowledge and nutrition advantages over the current global supply and can easily endure in all conditions and not just pandemics.

In almost every sector of Canadian communities there is continually voiced the theme of “building back better.”  Nowhere is this more valid than in the food industry. In every facet of food supply – grain, produce, fisheries, agriculture, to name a few – there are new incentives to get more local food into stores, markets and homes. At a time when global consumption is under scrutiny, the prospect of healthy farms and healthy food is just the ticket millions of Canadians are looking for.

But within all this positive movement lies an abiding threat. While it’s all beneficial, municipalities and communities aren’t effectively resourcing the infrastructure necessary for the long-term health of the local food supply chain. For the sake of future food security, investments must be made in enhancing local food markets, more efficient water management, needed environmental adaptation, clearer education for the benefits of locally grown foodstuffs, the effective redirection of local food from the global chain to the community where it is grown, and the overall design to turn our communities into food-secure areas. No COVID-19 recovery plan designed by any community can be truly effective without such measures.

The great threat is if we just lazily recede back into the spending patterns and growing practices of life before the pandemic. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now or in the future. Communities are moving in the local food direction because it makes sense and not just because it secures us in a time of pandemic. We need to build food and ecosystem resiliency and this pandemic has perhaps given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to finally get to what we should have been doing all along.

The next few blogs will look further into this challenge each day, but for now we should all be looking for food systems change and not just for an emergency plan to get us through some difficult days.

Glen Pearson

Co-Executive Director

London Food Bank

Community Gardens: Food, not Recreation

When the Government of Ontario closed parks, playing fields, and other “recreational amenities,” community gardens were included in the list.  On behalf of the thousands of Ontarians who rely on these gardens for food, we urgently call on the government to classify community gardens as essential food services, allowing the gardens to open in time for spring preparations and planting.

The COVID-19 pandemic is dire and forceful governmental action is certainly warranted; at the same time, the gardens, like other essential food services, could easily operate in a way that does not add to the health risks. Even though community gardens are not commercial food operations, they provide proven benefits for individuals and communities: for us, one role that stands out as crucial is the community’s food security.

Closing community gardens now effectively means that thousands of people will lose access to tonnes of fresh, local fruit and produce from their own community gardens and from the shelves of our food banks and other hunger relief organizations who benefit from those gardens. It won’t matter whether the restrictions are lifted later in the summer because without garden preparation and planting this spring, the entire growing season will be lost. We need to be in the gardens on the dry, warm days now for there to be fresh produce in August. The loss of an entire season’s worth of fresh, local fruit and produce would be a devastating blow even in a normal year, but we all know that there is nothing normal about the current situation. The loss of this season’s harvest will be much worse for our communities.

The unprecedented economic collapse we are living through is already driving up the need for emergency food services, and that need is expected to keep rising, putting additional pressure on organizations providing hunger relief. Food costs are also projected to keep rising, pushing the need for emergency food services even higher. COVID-19 is expected to result in agricultural labor shortages this summer and fall, further impacting food costs and possibly affecting production, resulting in sporadic food shortages, further destabilizing our communities’ food security. Even if there is significant funding put into emergency hunger relief later this year, without community gardens there will not be the tonnes of fresh, local fruit and produce readily available to fill that need. Food insecurity also has a curve that needs to be flattened; because community gardens are one measure for flattening it, keeping them closed steepens the curve.

Given the importance of community gardens in supporting  families, communities, and  local food banks and charitable hunger relief organizations, the closure of these gardens this spring constitutes a threat to communities’ food security at an especially vulnerable and treacherous time. They don’t have to be closed as part of the fight against COVID-19. The same physical distancing practices and protocols recommended for other essential agriculture and food services can be applied to community garden spaces (see our website for a set of recommendations). Many other locales across Canada and the US, including the province of BC, have recognized community gardens as essential food services permitted to operate under physical distancing protocols. We urge the government of Ontario to do the same, and we call on all Ontarians to support this critical action.

Benjamin Hill, chairperson
Middlesex-London Food Policy Council

Skylar Franke, executive director
London Environmental Network

Becky Ellis, chair
London Urban Beekeepers Collective
Permaculture for the People

Stephen Harrott,
Friends of Urban Agriculture London (FUAL)

Community Gardens are Essential Food Services

The Middlesex London Food Policy Council is joining Sustain Ontario and other organizations provincewide to call on the government of Ontario to identify community gardens as essential food services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The provincial government’s statement on Monday includes community gardens in the list of outdoor recreational amenities to remain closed until at least April 13, which places the season for those gardens at risk. More importantly, identifying community gardens as recreational rather than as part of the food production and distribution system understates the important role the gardens fill.

The City of London’s urban agriculture strategy emphasizes the importance of urban agriculture to provide access to nutritious and affordable food, improve physical and mental health and quality of life, and contribute to a sustainable, resilient food system. Research additionally supports these claims about the benefits of community gardens in urban spaces. There are 17 active community gardens within the city. Across the province, tens of thousands of families rely on community gardens for food.

According to Sustain Ontario, “This model of community food production is seen as integral to the COVID-19 response in countries throughout the world, particularly as food prices increase and global food supplies are increasingly uncertain. Food banks also receive literally tonnes of much needed fresh food from local community gardening efforts in communities all around Ontario.” The province of BC includes in its list of essential services: “food cultivation, including farming, livestock, aquaculture and fishing, and businesses that support the food supply chain, as well as community gardens and subsistence agriculture”.

For more information please contact:
Benjamin Hill, MLFPC Chair
info@MLFPC.ca

Changing Faces of Agriculture

It was great to be a part of the Changing Faces of Ag Event at the Western Fair District hosted by the London Chamber of Commerce, where over 200 people gathered to show support for our local agriculture community.
Joe Dales, president of agri-food innovation at the Roundhouse Accelerator, gave the opening keynote speech highlighting the unique opportunity that Canadian Agriculture has with the vast amount of innovative farmers and technology in our area.
The 3 panelists of innovative farmers consisted of: Andrew Campbell (Fresh Air Farmer), Susan Heeman (Heeman’s) and Murray Good (Whitecrest Mushrooms), who all shared stories of innovation and disruption. Campbell emphasized the necessity for agriculture to convey to consumers that farming is not black and white. Changing the perceptions that people have of agriculture is a challenging and complicated task.
How can we help farmers tell their story? We can start by visiting local farms and sharing our experiences with others. Heeman is an advocate for living-local and agri-tourism. Local food maps are a good way to help bridge the consumer and agriculture gap. As an entrepreneur, Heeman believes people want the on-farm experience and many are willing to pay the higher price for local food.
The closing keynote speaker, Keith Merker, CEO of WeedMD described the opportunity of knowledge transfer from traditional agriculture to cannabis and vice versa. Merker said we need to concentrate on similarities and opportunities to step up into the cannabis industry with ag knowledge.
The bubble of ag is expanding and consumers are getting more curious about where their food comes from and how it is produced. But, how do we break the divide between agriculture and society? It starts by openly talking with consumers. However, influencing consumers is complicated and challenging. As our environment is changing, how do we show agriculture is valuable? Joe calls us all to support local innovative companies, farmers, and neighbours. By engaging in communication with one another, we can start to change perceptions and create new ones by learning what each other is doing.

Processing Vegetable Growers lose critical bargaining power

On December 11, 2019 Ernie Hardeman, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, released a statement describing the amendments to Regulation 440. The changes will no longer allow the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers (OPVG) board the ability to negotiate on behalf of growers to ensure contracts are paid as negotiated. Growers are busy doing what they do best…producing food. Losing their collective bargaining power is removing a tool from their toolbox, leaving growers to take on more risk. This will result in growers feeling ignored and unsupported to make the best business decision.

In an ideal world, policies, subsidies and insurance programs would be made in the best interest of the growers. This contributes to a healthier, more sustainable food system as the growers are the closest to the land and have the knowledge about best practices. We all have an obligation to ensure that farm businesses are able to operate in a profitable and sustainable way.

There is tremendous value to organized, collective marketing for all Ontario growers, but only ifthe growers are supported in the process.  It takes work to come up with creative and innovative solutions and we need to have confidence and curiosity to pursue changes. Let’s get serious about our food system. Peggy is right we are dealing with real farmers, real families, real communities…without their success we have no food system.

City of London Multi-Year Budget

Your Voice Counts!

You have a chance right now to speak up for a healthy and stable local food system; one that is ecologically responsible and economically viable. Use your voice!

London has tabled its four-year budget, and City Council will be reviewing, debating, and inviting input on the budget until its final approval in March. There are opportunities for you to provide input at Ward meetings and Public Participation meetings. You can fill out the online feedback form and speak directly to your Councillor.

What does the budget have to do with food?

More than you might think!

This is the first budget London City Council will be approving since they acknowledged that we are facing a climate change emergency. It’s also a multi-year budget, setting the framework for the next four years of a decade that has authoritatively been identified as crucial in avoiding catastrophic climate changes.

The city’s proposed strategies to address the climate emergency include support for a robust local food system, including a strategy to “promote and invest in urban agriculture initiatives”. (You can find the November 2019 report here.) As a community food council, we think these kinds of strategies are crucial and we strongly support them. While they are not specifically included in the draft budget, they are expected to be part of the Climate Emergency Action Plan (CEAP) which the draft budget recommends be developed over the next year. That means this is a prime opportunity to strengthen the future of the local food system.

What can you do?

Show your support for a budget that prioritizes action on climate change and invests in urban agriculture, agro-forestry initiatives and a strong, healthy local food system.

Speak up

  • Provide your feedback to city council using the online feedback form
  • Sign the London Environmental Network’s petition calling on city council to prioritize climate action by funding as many climate action plans to reduce emissions as possible
  • Email, call or tweet your city Councillor with your feedback on the budget
  • Speak up at a Public Participation Meeting
  • Share this with your friends, family, and social networks

Council has already acknowledged we’re in a climate emergency. Your voice can convince them to make climate action the top budget priority, for the sake of providing a safe and sustainable local food system.