Lori Stahlbrand is on a 96 per cent mission.
It’s estimated only four per cent of the food Canadians consume is grown and sold through local farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture projects and the like. The rest comes from mainstream retailers, mostly supermarkets.
As a result, there’s a huge potential market for the local food economy and farmers who want to tap it, Stahlbrand told a conference in Winnipeg last week.
Stahlbrand was the keynote speaker at Growing Local, a conference sponsored by Food Matters Manitoba (formerly the Manitoba Food Charter). She heads Local Food Plus, an Ontario-based non-profit organization promoting local food use.
Supporting local food production is important because Canada’s food supply system is more precarious than people realize, Stahlbrand, a former CBC television reporter, told the conference at the University of Winnipeg Feb. 19.
Most Canadian cities have only a three-day food supply because supermarkets use just-in-time retail delivery for perishable foods. If the transportation system broke down, the food supply would be in trouble, Stahlbrand said.
Much of the food in grocery stores is also imported. The average food item on a Canadian dinner plate travels 4,000 km to get there, she said.
Not only is importing food from distant sources unsustainable, it makes little sense in a country strong in agriculture, said Stahlbrand.
For example, Manitoba’s 19,000 farms occupy 11 per cent of the arable land in the nation. Approximately 15 per cent of the province’s jobs are in the agri-food sector. Only the economies of Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island rely more heavily on agriculture than Manitoba does.
Yet Canada’s farmers are leaving the industry in growing numbers, prime agricultural land is being lost to developers and a lot of food which could be produced here comes from elsewhere, she said.
Stahlbrand’s organization aims to change that by developing sustainable local food production systems.
Founded in 2006, Food Plus helps develop supply chains involving farmers and industry players to provide local institutions with regionally grown food.
To date, the organization has certified 200 farmers and has contracts with 70 purchasers.
The University of Toronto has been the organization’s largest partner for three years. Currently, 20 per cent of the food used by the university’s food service is locally produced. The university has a 25 per cent goal for next year.
Local Food Plus certifies farmers according to certain standards to qualify them to supply local food chains. Criteria include: a sustainable production system, humane livestock care, safe and fair working conditions, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, enhanced wildlife habitat and biodiversity.
Local Food Plus plans to expand into Manitoba and has already certified several farmers, Stahlbrand said.
Following her address, Stahlbrand said eating local doesn’t mean eschewing imports. It just means choosing food which can be grown here instead of bringing it in.
“When we’re talking about a local food system, we’re not saying it’s all local or nothing. We’re not saying you’re not going to have another orange again. We’re saying let’s at least up the amount of local food we can when we can, and let’s try to make sure we’re not importing foods that are the same foods we can grow very well ourselves.”
Stahlbrand rejected criticism by some large-scale producers that Local Food Plus isn’t really commercial agriculture.
“Our farmers are farmers. They’re not city people,” she said. “We’re not talking about city people playing at farming. We’re talking about major producers.”
Local Food Plus’s certified suppliers include Thomas Canning Ltd. of Maidstone, Ontario, one of Canada’s largest tomato processors, and Norfolk Fruit Growers Association of Simcoe, Ontario, a farmer-owned apple co-operative.
Glen Franklin, a rural director for Food Matters Manitoba, said the local food movement can coexist with commercial-scale agriculture because they have different audiences.
“They’re going to produce different products and they’re going to sell to different markets,” said Franklin, a cattle producer from Deloraine. [email protected]