The luxury of growing what we eat: Provincial Local Food Act could spell win-win for farmers and food banks

In Ontario, agri-food is the largest driver of the provincial economy. Fruit and vegetable farmers alone grow more than 125 different crops and support more than 30,000 on-farm jobs, as well as a further 8,700 food-processing jobs specific to horticulture and specialty crops in the province.

We also have some of the world’s most affordable food right here on our doorstep. As Canadians, we spend less of our annual household budgets on food than citizens of virtually any other nation and we mark Food Freedom Day, the day when the average Canadian has earned enough money to pay for their year’s grocery bill, in early February.

And yet, amidst all this plenty, comes the most recent report from Food Banks Canada that shows food bank usage is 23 per cent higher now than it was during the 2008 recession, and that never has it been more challenging for people to afford essential food. According to the Ontario Association of Food Banks, 412,000 Ontarians visit a food bank every month, and of those, 160,000 are children.

We’re also inundated with statistics about the amount of food that we waste. Globally, the United Nations estimates at least one third of all food produced fails to make it from the farm to the table; closer to home, a 2010 study by the Oakville-based Value Chain Management Centre estimated that $27 billion worth of food is wasted annually in Canada.

That’s why it was good to see the Ontario government’s Local Food Act pass third reading in the Legislature recently, and we appreciate the support this bill was given by members of all political parties. In particular, as a result of an amendment put forth by the Conservative opposition, farmers who donate agricultural products to an Ontario food bank or community food program will be eligible for a 25 per cent non-refundable tax credit.

There are already many farmers who donate to food banks, community programs and food rescues and have been doing so for a long time, but it’s nice to see that economic recognition of their efforts. And hopefully, it will encourage more to participate. A program in Windsor-Essex called Forgotten Harvest is a good example; their refrigerated trucks regularly collect surplus tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers from many Leamington-area greenhouses and distribute them to approximately 50 agencies in the Windsor area.

The Local Food Act also provides a mechanism for encouraging the use of more locally grown food, especially fruit and vegetables, by consumers and by our broader public sector institutions, such as schools, universities, hospitals, correctional facilities, longterm care homes and others. Not only will this have a positive impact on the overall health and well-being of Ontarians, but it will also create jobs and encourage stronger economic partnerships between farmers, food processors and the institutions themselves, which we see as being vital to rural economic development and to keeping Ontarians employed.

One of the keys to building the stronger local food system envisioned by the Act is improving the basic food literacy of Ontarians, especially in the school system. As farmers, we are supportive of food education initiatives that focus on nutrition, preparation, storage and handling, but also on where that food comes from.

Only 2 per cent of the Canadian population works to feed the other 98, so awareness of agriculture is important. The introduction of a new Local Food Week to happen at the beginning of June will help kick off the summer local food season as well as provide the opportunity to highlight local food and farming in our schools.

Food is a necessity of life and we’re lucky in our part of the world that we are able to produce most of what we consume. By entrenching the support of locally produced food in legislation such as the Local Food Act, the government has publicly recognized the key role farmers play in our society and the hard work we put into providing Ontarians with a safe and reliable food supply.

Ray Duc is a grape and tender fruit grower in the Niagara-on-the-Lake and chair of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, which represents Ontario’s 7,500 fruit, vegetable and greenhouse producers.