CORNWALL-Participants at the Eastern Ontario Eco-Farm Day here Feb. 25 jammed into a meeting room at the Ramada Inn to learn about the start of a unique organization that gives producers the opportunity to provide consumers with "local sustainably produced" food and consumers the good fortune to eat these products.
Lori Stahlbrand, the founder of "Local Flavour Plus", used the word ‘sustainable’ many times during her address, so it requires some definition. According to Webster’s Dictionary, ‘to sustain’ means ‘to prevent from falling, collapsing or giving way, to keep going, to provide with nourishment, to support or bear a weight’; therefore, ‘sustainable’ must mean having the ability to do the above.
Stahlbrand said she started the organization because she was concerned about food security in Canada.
"Just 40 years ago, we were largely food self-sufficient. In 40 years, this has completely reversed. We import most of the food we eat, both conventional and organic. In fact, when it comes to imports, organic is in even worse shape than conventional," said Stahlbrand.
Unfortunately, this includes not only exotic products but also food like tomatoes and carrots that grow very well in Canada and this is happening even at the height of the growing season.
"This is what has happened to our food system. It makes absolutely no sense to transport food over great distances, burning fossil fuel, contributing to climate change at the same time as our own rural communities are becoming more impoverished."
Stahlbrand’s best-selling book "Real Food For A Change", defines ‘real food’ as having ‘health, joy, justice and nature. It needs all four of those to be real food that is connected to the planet, to the ecosystem, to the community. Health is not just about nutrition. It’s about healthy soils that support the growth of healthy plants. It’s about freshness that can only come from local. It’s about healthy ecosystems and a healthy community where people have jobs that have dignity and relationships that matter to them. So creating health in this sense of the word is a challenge to organic agriculture today."
While working on a PHD at York University, Stahlbrand felt she didn’t just want to study the topic of local sustainably produced food. She wanted to do something about it and went ahead and founded Local Flavour Plus.
The organization has received incorporated non-profit status and is in the process of applying for charitable registration. It receives funding from Metcalfe, Laidlaw and McLean Foundations and from FoodShare Toronto and is working to create markets for local, sustainably produced food across Canada.
"Our mission is to link local farmers with people who want that food. One way is to start with institutional purchasers: universities, hospitals, municipal government, places where a lot of people are eating and a lot of food is being bought. So you can say to farmers: we have significant demand."
Stahlbrand defines sustainable food systems as "financially viable for all stakeholders. People have to make a living in a sustainable way. It has to operate with ecological integrity and reflect the fact that we are part of nature. It has to be socially responsible. Farm workers and farmers need to be paid a fair wage, so they can make a living from it. It has to be primarily local and regional and healthy and caring of humans and other species. Recognizing that we are part of a larger ecosystem and that the animals in our care are also part of that environment and deserve respect as well."
Unfortunately, 85 per cent of the organic food being eaten in Canada is imported with most of it coming from the United States, Stahlbrand said. "The organic label is really about production methods and input although many organic farmers do go beyond that and what is required for certification."
But other issues affect the food system, including biodiversity, habitat, rural environment, rural impoverishment, urban sprawl, worker welfare, energy uses, packaging and food security.
These all form part of the context of a local sustainable food system.
Research by the Ontario Natural Food Co-op indicates that consumers do prefer to buy "locally sustainably produced food, if it is competitively priced, well presented, most of all available and they can actually identify it," said Stahlbrand.
The challenge is how to create standards for such food and how to market it effectively and to do that, Stahlbrand has gathered a team consisting of Dr. Rod McCrae, director of standards development, Mike Schreiner, director of market development, and organic inspector Gary Lean. That is what Local Flavour Plus is working on through the development of standards for a number of crops and food products. Farmers working with Local Flavour Plus agree to follow a number of conditions ensuring sustainable systems that reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and conserve soil and water: to protect wildlife and biodiversity; to provide safe and fair working conditions for on-farm labour; to provide healthy, humane care for livestock and to reduce on-farm energy consumption and greenhouse gases by recycling, minimal packaging and selling products regionally whenever possible.
The organization operates on a point system, where farmers gain points for sustainable practices in a number of categories and are required to accumulate points in each area for a total of 75 per cent. Then they become eligible to supply local institutions and Local Flavour Plus helps them with marketing. The University of Toronto is their first big client, having made a commitment to be the first university in Canada to source local sustainably produced food. Stahlbrand teaches a course in food security at New College at the university, and helped write the language for a request for proposals. The terms require that anyone bidding on the contract purchase a certain amount of ‘Local Flavour Plus’ certified food with a percentage increase each year over the life of the contract. Stahlbrand said that Local Flavour Plus is working with food service providers towards greater sustainability ‘step by step. As farmers become certified and as supply becomes available. Its not an all or nothing approach."
"We need to work with farmers and get them on board. The standards need to be developed for crops; the institutions need to be educated. It has to happen step by step, but that is what they are happy about and agreeing to is that it doesn’t require a complete overhaul of their food services. They can start this, wedge it in as supply becomes available."
A spectator asked about the tendency to counterpose local food with organic food: which is better? Since consumers have been trained to look for certified organic food as a guarantee, why isn’t the organization primarily based on organic instead of local?
Stahlbrand said one reason is the huge number of imported organic products. "If everyone who eats organics in Canada wanted to buy local, we don’t have the supply. We want to create a bigger tent so we can bring in farmers who are thinking about it or who are very close to organic."
Local Flavour Plus accepts level two and level three integrated pesticide management as well as organic, although it favours organic growers in the point system, allotting certified organic growers an automatic 600 points out of 1200.
Conference chair Tom Manley asked about the working conditions of farm owners, and was greeted with nods of agreement and some laughter. "The fair trade system exists to give farmers, especially in developing countries, a fair price. What ensures that in Canada the Ontario farmer gets a fair deal?"
"The first aspect of a sustainable food system is that it has to be financially viable for all stakeholders," Stahlbrand replied. "Farmers are obviously stakeholders and it’s important that farmers achieve a fair price. In the work we’ve done with institutions, we’ve been making it clear that this is not going to cost the same. There is a premium to this food, which shows you what the true value of that food."
Stahlbrand explained Local Flavour Plus does not negotiate prices for farmers.
"Ultimately the farmer and the food service purchase have to negotiate the price. We bring the pieces together but we don’t negotiate the price. However, we do help in developing infrastructure. I’m a great believer in co-ops and helping farmers get together to get a fair price."