Tapping Canada’s urban breadbasket

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Wed Feb 24 2010.  By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

On a clear day, you can see one-third of Canada’s class-one farmland from the top of the CN Tower.

You can also see a city in which one out of every 10 families can’t afford to eat properly and one out of every three children is overweight or obese.

“There is clearly something broken in the food system,” says Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. David McKeown.

It isn’t the city’s job to fix it. Responsibility for agriculture, food safety, land-use planning, health and nutrition, environmental policy and social services belongs to the federal and provincial governments.

But since neither Ottawa nor Queen’s Park shows much inclination to move away from the mass marketing of highly processed food – which relies on abundant energy, cheap labour and high-powered advertising aimed at kids – Toronto has decided to act on its own.

The city has more power than its citizens might think, McKeown says. It buys $11 million worth of food every year (for child-care centres, seniors’ residences and homeless shelters). Its consumers, restaurateurs and retailers are in the vanguard of the local food movement. It has a grassroots network of community gardens and local farmers’ markets. It has a 3-year-old Food Business Incubator program, which nurtures local entrepreneurs attempting to break the stranglehold of the commercial giants. And it has a reputation as one of the North American leaders in developing healthy, sustainable alternatives to the chemical-loaded, overpackaged products available on the commercial market.

Now McKeown and his colleagues at Toronto Public Health want to pull all these pieces into an ambitious urban food strategy.

Their draft plan, unveiled at a Board of Health meeting last week, won’t be finalized until public consultations have been held this spring, which allowed McKeown to sidestep the awkward question of cost. But in June, he intends to submit a finished version of the blueprint, with specific recommendations, to city council. At that time, he will have to lay out the spending implications.

He will also have to convince council the initiative makes economic sense. Without subsidies, local farmers can’t afford to sell at a discount to low-income Torontonians. (The average Ontario food producer makes roughly $8,000 a year.) Without financial incentives, they have little reason to join the organic food movement. (They can make more money producing bulk food for export.)

The real value of Food Connections: Toward a Healthy and Sustainable Food System in Toronto lies in its can-do spirit; its vision of healthy eating in a world of scarce and expensive energy; and the connections it makes between nutrition, poverty and the environment.

“Historically, we (public health officials) have focused on the consumer, urging him or her to make better choices,” McKeown says. “But the problem is the system.”

Without spending a cent, he points out, the city could:

  • Change bylaws that prevent community groups from setting up garden plots and food markets in municipal parks.
  • Incorporate food into its Transit City plan, encouraging grocery stores, bakeries and open-air markets to congregate at transfer points, bringing life to suburban streets and allowing commuters to shop on their way home.
  • Earmark some of the money targeted at Toronto’s 13 priority neighbourhoods to get residents engaged in urban farming.
  • Use zoning and licensing regulations to ensure the city’s “food deserts” offer residents an alternative to calorie-laden convenience foods.
  • Require all city-funded agencies, boards and commissions to develop local food purchasing policies.

Clearly, we are approaching the day when shipping food halfway around the world is no longer feasible.

Toronto is at least thinking about the future, developing a healthier model and tapping into the creativity of its citizens.

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