Canada’s local food movement champions sustainable, regional food systems in which farmland is spared from urban and industrial sprawl so that ecologically-minded farmers produce food, with consideration for animal, environmental and human health, for a public who knows where their food comes from and is engaged in eating seasonally. With roots in early 20th-century farming practices, the local food movement was widely popularized in the early 2000s.

The most recognizable expression of the local food movement may be the farmers’ markets. There are hundreds of farmers’ markets in Canada and these are busy public places. People come to buy fresh produce, often directly from farmers, along with all sorts of food made by small businesses and food entrepreneurs, such as artisan cheese, preserves and small-batch fermented pickles. The farmers’ markets are often said to represent the local food movement, but this social movement is made up of wide-reaching groups drawn together across cultural, political, socio-economic and geographical divides to advocate for a more sustainable, ethical and just food system. These groups and individuals are motivated to come together and try to radically transform the mainstream industrial food system that provides much of the food that we eat today. Core principles of the local food movement include privileging organics over genetically modified or processed foods, ethical farming practices rather than large scale factory farming and sustainable farming that limits environmental impact while leveraging the local climate and landscape for seasonal offerings.

The local food movement is pan-Canadian and exists in cities, towns and rural areas. Some examples of the kinds of projects that people who are part of the movement advocate for include: community gardens; programs to increase access to healthy fruits and vegetables in low-income communities; urban fruit gleaning projects (harvesting fruit from trees on public land and distributing it to communities in need); community orchards; seed libraries; and efforts to keep farmland from urban and industrial development. While this is predominantly a Canadian local food movement, it is also a global movement. In many countries around the world, people are advocating for policy changes and are engaged in projects that are focused on similar goals. For this reason, local food movements around the world are sometimes grouped together and called the sustainable food movement.

History

The local food movement is relatively new. In fact, food policy analyst and former head of the Toronto Food Policy Council (TFPC), Wayne Roberts, believes he witnessed its birth in 2004. He had been chairing food policy meetings for four years when suddenly new people started to participate. The meetings went from being sparsely attended to being so popular that the fire marshal had to clear some people from the room. As Roberts indicates, “Food became part of identity, part of place.” He observes that the local food movement is largely a youth movement fuelled by a drive to improve food systems for the future, particularly in light of climate change and increasing economic inequality.

Even before the food policy council in Toronto was attracting new, younger members from across Canada, other food-themed projects were envisioned. In 1999, chefs on Vancouver Island founded the Island Chefs Collaborative. The chefs wanted to guarantee for themselves access to the kinds of ingredients that they preferred to cook with—that is, sustainably-produced food from nearby farmers. Similarly in New Brunswick in the late 1990s, a group of farmers living around the town of Acadieville decided to try to beat back the wave of farm bankruptcies that had been sweeping their area by banding together and creating a farmers’ co-operative. They were able to save their family farms and earn more money by turning away from corporate buyers such as supermarkets and selling their food directly to their neighbours instead. In Saskatoon, husband and wife team Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen conceived what they called SPIN farming—small plot-intensive farming—and drew attention to the idea that a backyard in the city could also be a farm. In Montréal, a group called Alternatives started a rooftop garden on the campus of McGill University to demonstrate just how easy it can be to grow food in the city. Interest in food was bubbling up in communities both big and small across Canada.

The Philosophical Roots of the Local Food Movement

The local food movement has deep roots in other social movements connected to food, as well as to the environmental movement. The ideas and the advocacy work accomplished by earlier activists inspire and inform the movement today. For example, in the 1930s in the United Kingdom, people talked about the importance of protecting land from the advances of urban sprawl and eventually a greenbelt was created around London. Today, the local food movement in Ontario is working to connect people who live in cities with food grown in the province’s greenbelt. In British Columbia, the local food movement is involved in the fight to maintain the Agricultural Land Reserve that was created by the provincial government to keep farmland from being developed into industrial areas and housing.

The local food movement also draws upon ideas for re-imagining farming practices from the last century. In 1920s Germany, philosopher Rudolf Steiner introduced a unique approach to agriculture. He created what he called biodynamic farming, an agricultural method that takes care of the health of the soil and plants without using human-made chemicals. This farming method continues to be practised today in Germany and in many other countries, including Canada. Another inspiration for the local food movement can be found in 1940, when a British botanist named Sir Albert Howard published a book describing traditional farming practices he had observed in India. He believed that this method of farming, which didn’t depend on modern technology, was a productive and superior to the way people farmed in the West. For his work, Howard is sometimes called the father of organic agriculture. Another British man, F. H. King, wrote on similar themes in his book about what he observed on farms in China. In Japan, a farmer named Masanobu Fukuoka wrote his own low-impact farming manifesto that was translated into English. These works continue to inspire the local food movement today as they promote the idea that farming practices do not have to utilize toxic chemicals. Farmers can achieve a balance with nature by using natural methods.

It also can be said that the local food movement is inspired by the Victory Gardens of the Second World War, when people living in cities planted more than 200,000 vegetable gardens in their yards and on vacant lots. The movement also has a connection to both the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and the health food movement of the 1970s and 1980s when people started to question whether there was any health value in food products that were made by big food corporations and sold in various supermarkets. Some items that were included on this list included bagged white bread, soda pop and soup cans.

A National Conversation Begins

Around 2005, when Canadian food policy analyst Wayne Roberts was noticing a rising interest in the politics of food, three key books gained popularity and shed light onto the “dark side of the food system,” thereby perpetuating many of the ideas of the local food movement into the popular mainstream. In the United States, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation exposed many unsavoury aspects of the fast food industry while Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, similarly portrayed a food system in the midst of serious crisis. Then, in 2009, a Canadian couple, Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon, wrote The 100-Mile Diet and documented how challenging it was to eat food grown within a 100-mile radius of their Vancouver home. Thanks in part to these books, the industrial food system’s long-distance diet, with its high environmental cost and associated health problems (the obesity epidemic and a rise in diabetes) were exposed and a national conversation began.

An ever-expanding movement

Across the country, signs of this new food movement could be spotted in communities large and small. Whereas in some towns such as Meaford, Ontario, farmers’ markets had been shut down in the 1990s, a growing interest in buying food directly from Canadian farmers prompted municipalities across the country to either open new farmers’ markets or renovate and refurbish old ones. Meaford, for example, started a new market in a park along the Georgian Bay waterfront. In bigger cities, dozens of markets were opened, such as a new Halifax market at the Victoria General Site of the QEII Health Sciences Centre that was founded in 2009. Another new market was opened at Toronto’s Evergreen Brickworks market where thousands of people now flock every weekend. In Saskatoon, the farmers’ market was moved to a new, year-round facility and Halifax also oversaw a major renovation of their market terminal. These markets have been embraced by the public. For example, on the day the market in downtown Dieppe, New Brunswick opened, ten thousand people gathered there.

There are numerous signs that the local food movement is spreading. For instance, there has been a rise in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs whereby farmers offer subscription programs to the public. Members pay the farmer at the beginning of the season for a specified amount of food to be delivered throughout the harvest.. CSAs, as they are commonly known, began with vegetable farms and have grown to now include meat and eggs, fish, urban honey, freshly-baked bread and even cheese. What all these CSAs have in common is that they connect producers of fresh, local foods directly to the eating public in their areas.

Chefs and restaurateurs have played a key role in the spread of the local food movement, popularizing seasonal eating, bringing back more traditional cooking techniques and demonstrating to the eating public how they might use these ingredients, recipes and methods at home. In cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and Montréal, dozens of chefs have opened new “farm-to-table” restaurants where they serve the food they’ve prepared with ingredients they sourced themselves, directly from the farmer as opposed to a global food provisioning company. On these menus one would find dishes made from all parts of the animal rather than only the most tender (this is called nose-to-tail dining) as well as vegetables like Brussels sprouts, cabbage and kale that, up until recently, were considered to be old fashioned. These farm-to-table establishments can be exclusive, serving a clientele willing to pay high prices for braised Brussels sprouts; however, there are farm-to-table restaurants of all price points. Veteran chefs of this movement include Michael Stadtländer and Jamie Kennedy in Toronto, as well as the numerous chefs that have cooked at Vancouver Island’s Sooke Harbour House. These chefs have inspired a new generation that continue to open restaurant s that serve local foods.

There has also been a shift in the way institutions think about food provisioning. Universities and colleges as well as some hospitals have written new procurement protocol stipulating how much of the food they serve should be local and sustainable. Some institutions, such as Ryerson University and The Scarborough Hospital in Toronto, have hired a chef to head up their food services and figure out how to make the food not only healthier for their patrons but also more sustainable for the earth.

Considering that the focus of the local food movement is to reconnect people with the source of their food, educators and parents have sought to start vegetable gardens on school grounds where young people can learn to grow food and better understand the cycles of nature. Some high schools have taken this idea further by creating urban farming programs, as well as cooking courses, whereby students learn to prepare the fresh ingredients grown by their schoolmates to sell in the school cafeteria.

More generally, there has also been a rise in urban agriculture. Not long ago, the term urban farming would have been considered an oxymoron, but thanks to the local food movement there are now many food-growing projects across the country. Non-profit organizations are teaching people to grow food and learn “food literacy” — an understanding of the impacts that food choices have on health, the community and the environment. In some cases, these food-growing projects are designed to increase the availability of healthy vegetables in low-income communities. Also, many small businesses and social enterprises are starting food- growing businesses, typically producing vegetables in the city for sale. Such businesses include Montréal’s Lufa Farms that built the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouse and now supplies Montréal-grown food to city residents, even in the winter.

The Indigenous food sovereignty movement is, in part, inspired by similar goals. This movement , however, focuses on addressing the policies and systemic issues that have made it difficult for many of Canada’s First Nations peoples to access healthy foods and that also have separated people from heritage foods. Not only are groups working to fix the serious lack of affordable health food options on the country’s reserves, but they are also trying to preserve Indigenous food traditions. Some of these efforts include the preservation and harvest of the camas bulb on Vancouver Island and hunting lessons in Northern Ontario that target a younger demographic and teach them wild food provisioning skills.

Critiques of the Local Food Movement

The local food movement has been critiqued by economists who claim that a focus on the local is bad for trade and not necessarily better for the environment. Also, the sustainable food that is produced by organic farmers and sold in farmers’ markets is often criticized for being more expensive than what one would buy at the supermarket. These critiques have inspired a sometimes strident debate between those who believe in local and sustainable food systems and those who support the long-distance industrial food system. Academic studies and data have offered support to both sides, and have fuelled the debate.

A National Food Policy

There’s a saying in the local food movement that “you can vote with your fork.” However, organizations such as Food Secure Canada remind us that as political as eating might be, the food system is a product of policy. This organization, as well as others, advocates for a national food policy. They spent three years creating what they call a “People’s Food Policy” to offer guidance to the government for how Canada can build a food system that is sustainable and equitable; that allows farmers to earn a living growing the food Canadians eat; that protects farmland from development; and that also ensures that Canadians have access to healthy, sustainable and culturally-appropriate food.