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