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Toronto's Local-Food Procurement Policy - Walking the Talk...One Step at a Time

Originally Published: http://www.edibletoronto.com/content/pages/articles/win08/torontosLocalFood.pdf

by Steven Biggs

“If cities don’t protect local growers and suppliers, who will?” asks Elena Quistini as we talk about her experiences selling pasta. As president of Toronto-based Pasta Quistini Inc., she knows a thing or two about buylocal policies, and they’re not always good for her business. When she calls on purchasers for the City of Buffalo, they tell her that her products are great and her prices are very competitive – but that they have a mandate to support people in the area. No sale.

Buffalo is not alone in its buy-local approach. The Town of Markham, Ontario implemented a local food policy this fall. And the University of Toronto is already in its third year of using locally grown food at its downtown campus.

The buy-local consciousness has catapulted up from individuals to corporations, institutions, and now, governments. In October, the City of Toronto approved a pilot buy-local food policy that will take effect in 2009. That’s big news in a city with a nearby agricultural greenbelt. And it’s even bigger news considering the city is the second-largest foodprocessing hub in North America.

Awareness of locally grown food has grown for many reasons, including freshness, flavour, food security, and the positive spinoff on the local economy and area farmers. But theToronto local-food policy grew out of the Climate Change, Clean Air and Sustainable Energy Action Plan that city council unanimously adopted in 2007. The goal of the plan is to reduce greenhouse gas and smog-causing emissions. (Buying locally produced food means less transport and fewer emissions.)

The City of Toronto’s local-food policy will be rolled out in the children’s services division in 2009, accompanied by a budget increase of $15,000. Next fall, city staff on the pilot buy-local project will evaluate the project for the city’s government management committee and will provide a briefing on the results of the children’s services project, as well as possible financial implications of introducing the policy in other city divisions. Assuming that implementation studies go well, the goal is that local food will comprise 50 percent of food purchases in numerous municipal departments as soon as possible.

Dr. Wayne Roberts, acting manager at the Toronto Food Policy Council (TFPC), a sub-committee of theToronto Board of Health, sees local food procurement as an opportunity, rather than a problem, for the city. The new policy represents a milestone in attitudes toward food, he says, because, “Very few people think of food as a municipal issue.”

“Food is an opportunity for dialogue,” explains Roberts, author of the recently publishedThe No-Nonsense Guide toWorld Food. Roberts is talking about the opportunity to build bridges between Toronto and other parts of the province – no surprise given that the TFPC is an urban-rural policy-development body that works to bring together producers and consumers.

Having promised one apple for every signature on its petition for a local and sustainable food policy, theToronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) delivered two thousand apples to city councillors in October. They were Ontario apples, of course. TEA campaigner Jamie Kirkpatrick is enthusiastic about the new Toronto plan: “It will be a great thing. It will show the rest of the country that Toronto is choosing to buy locally grown food first.” Intentionally or not, TEA’s use of apples was symbolic of the importance of supporting Ontario farmers. With stiff North American and overseas competition, apple orchard acreage in Ontario fell from 30,000 acres in 1996 to 20,000 in 2005.

More than a year elapsed between the July 2007 adoption of the city’s climate change plan and the October 2008 approval of a local food procurement policy, a longer wait than many had anticipated. In a city the size of Toronto, though, food is more than municipal snack bars.

“Toronto has a more daunting task than most cities because our food services are much more complete and comprehensive,” says Roberts, referring to city-run shelters, hostels, daycares, and homes for the aged. “The city has quite a progressive attitude about food and makes food available to people in a wide variety of circumstances.”

This progressive attitude means that the city can’t always pass cost increases along to end users, as a restaurant could for something like fair-trade coffee. In city-operated homes for the aged, for example, the Province of Ontario pays the city a fixed daily amount for food. Because provincial input is fixed, additional food costs come out of the city’s coffers and, while it’s not always the case, local food is perceived to be more expensive than conventional food.

Cost concerns aside, this sort of shift in values can result in scalerelated adjustments as small farms butt up against large corporations. The reason is that, hidden from public view, are large distribution companies hired by the city to supply food. At the University of Toronto, which has adopted local-purchasing practices, Ann MacDonald, director of ancillary services, explains that many foodservice companies are large, global organizations with rigorous procurement specifications – and these specifications might not always be appropriate for smaller farms and processors. MacDonald says that in the past, the university has helped the companies examine barriers to working with the farmer.

Local Food at the University of Toronto
At 89 Chestnut, a University ofToronto student residence and conference centre, executive chef Jaco Lokker receives his potatoes from a farmer driving a pickup truck. Through a partnership with LFP, the university buys products from farmers certified as local and sustainable. Speaking about the transition to locally grown foods, Lokker says, “The first thing people think is, ‘How am I gong to do this? It’s going to be so expensive.’ There’s this red light that goes [on] and everybody goes into a panic.” Lokker, now in his third year of buying local food, hasn’t had reason to panic. He hit the goal of 10 percent local food in the first year, a figure that climbed to 20 percent last year – and his expenses have not increased. While some of the foods are more expensive, he has controlled costs by educating students to reduce waste.

For Lokker, serving locally grown food is a natural fit with the university environment: “When we’re dealing with students, it’s individuals who are often making choices for the first time in their lives,” he explains, “You have an opportunity to [have an] impact [on] them to make the right choices.”

While the City of Toronto has adopted a local food policy, Anne MacDonald, director of ancillary services at U of T, explains that achievements at the university are due to changes at the operational level, not through official policy. And it works well. Since securing a commitment from one of the university’s large foodservice contractors to supply the downtown campus with local, sustainable food, MacDonald has had overtures from other foodservice suppliers seeking to follow suit.

Going Further
While the city’s adoption of the purchasing policy is good news to supporters of local food, those who have been following the initiative from the beginning will notice that the term “sustainable” was dropped. According to Roberts, “To say that ‘local’ solves global warming is to misunderstand the issue.”

Roberts goes on to explain that opportunities to reduce greenhouse- gas-emitting practices extend beyond transportation. He cites American food-system research indicating that 14 percent of the energy used in food production is for transportation, but a further 44 percent goes towards processing, packaging, and the agricultural production itself. This means there is a far greater opportunity to influence energy use by purchasing local foods that are grown, processed, and packaged in a sustainable manner, more than tripling the reductions.

The term “sustainable” can encompass broader notions, including fair labour practices, humane animal husbandry, and wildlife habitat protection. The broad interpretations of the word – and the potential cost implications it carries – scared some city politicians and staff and, in the end, staff recommended holding off on sustainable purchases. Emissions reductions aside, there’s another argument for sustainability: Adding it as a criterion for food purchases could simplify the procurement process. This is because Toronto is home to the non-profit organization Local Food Plus (LFP), which encourages local and sustainable food systems. LFP certifies producers as local and sustainable, then connects them with purchasers.

This certification is useful because the current food system does not always have separate channels for local food.TheTFPC gives the example of eggs, which are usually Canadian, owing to the supply-management system. It’s not always easy, however, to determine if they come from Ontario or another province. Because LFP certifies member producers, the city and its suppliers wouldn’t be encumbered with the burden of verifying whether food is local.

Lori Stahlbrand, president of LFP, says, “There’s enormous potential for the city to make a positive impact on the local economy,” referring to the potential to further invigorate the food processing industry. “Enormous” isn’t an understatement. Toronto is home to four hundred food processing companies, a number that jumps to sixteen hundred when the surrounding region is included.These companies make baked goods, supplements, sauces, beverages, prepared meats, and a host of specialty foods – and they, in turn, do business with warehousing, transportation, and packaging companies.

Back at Pasta Quistini Inc., Elena Quistini is glad the city will be shopping locally. She explains that when she works with municipalities, she tries to get her name on the notification list for upcoming tenders. “If you’re lucky enough to be on the list, you have a chance to throw your name into the hat. After 28 years, I’m still not on every list.” She’s now looking forward to getting onto more.

“We can become an epicentre for food processing in North America,” says Jane Graham, executive director of the Alliance of Ontario Food Processors. With so many food processors in Toronto, Graham’s enthusiasm for the future growth of the Ontario food processing industry is encouraging. She adds that food processors in Ontario buy 70 percent of Ontario farm production.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is that the opportunities presented by local food could potentially become a lightning rod for differences in ideology, as local food policiesmean that themunicipal government is sticking its finger in the marketplace. Elena Quistini, long in business herself, doesn’t mind: “We’re proud that Toronto is taking care of its own.”

Steven Biggs is a freelance writer and horticulturist. Next to gardening, one of his favourite pastimes is cooking food he has grown or sourced locally.