To understand the Promoting Local Food Act, tabled in the Ontario Legislature on October 4, it helps to know the difference between government support and government policy.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty does know how to show real support on food measures - in particular instances. On the morning of October 4, he spoke to no less an assembly than the Premier's Summit On Agri-Food Innovation about Ontario's upcoming trade mission to China, which will focus on food exports.
No policy necessary here, but the support is there, chiefly for corn, pork and milk formula for babies - all three high on China's list of needs and part of the backbone of an industrialized long-distance food system.
Bill 130, about local food, is a different story. Yes, at the summit the premier called on Ontarians to shift $10 of their weekly food budget to local food to create thousands of jobs.
But that's sheer rhetoric; there's nothing in the bill to back it up. If you check the Promoting Local Food Act, there's only one solid will-do in the whole five pages. From this year on, the week after Victoria Day is proclaimed Local Food Week.
That might seem an odd time to celebrate local food, since few fresh and local foods are available. I'm guessing May was selected for Local Food Week because "may" is the operative word in the bill. The ag minister "may" set targets and goals for the purchasing of local food by public sector institutions, it says. A goal "may" be established for government bodies, and the minister "may" require public agencies to provide information relevant to targets, and also "may" make regulations, and "may" even "establish programs for the betterment of agriculture, food and rural affairs in Ontario." May seems the perfect time to celebrate such a merry list of mays.
Let me outline a few things any serious local food bill would identify but this one does not.
The first would be a tangible commitment to local farmers that public agencies such as hospitals, jails and universities would back them. Such programs start modestly, as with the successful ones in the city of Markham or University of Toronto. There, the target was set at 10 per cent local and sustainable the first year, 15 per cent the next, and so on. U of T cafeterias are now heading for 25 per cent, if the government wants a benchmark for what can be done.
The odds are stacked against local food. The feds, for example, plunk down $2.3 billion for a new bridge to make it faster and cheaper to transport food from Florida and California across the Windsor border. Hopefully, truckers carrying U.S. food will wave thanks for the subsidy as they pass Ontario farms along the route.
A serious bill would also encourage young farmers to fill the gaps in the food system: fruits and vegetables. Though experts say five to 10 servings a day are the cornerstone of a healthy diet, the Ontario ag ministry and federal ag department privilege meat and grain exports while protecting dairy, chicken and egg producers in local markets.
As a result, only 7 per cent of Canadian farms grow fruit and veg, according to York professor Rod MacRae's read of the 2011 census. Acreage for veggies is down 13.5 per cent since 2006, a sign of crisis in the sector. Something needs to be done.
A serious bill for Ontario would address the opportunities to produce local food for the most multicultural consumers in the world by supporting farmers and NGOs that now carry the entire weight of that transition.
The preem gave a $5,000 award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence to Peter Mitchell and others on behalf of the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre and to Toronto's Stop Community Food Centre, animators pioneering this work. The money went to promoting such crops as callaloo, amaranth and bok choy.
A government prioritizing local would recognize this sector's importance with more than awards, and would build strategies based on the accomplishments of grassroots orgs.
For example, McGuinty appropriated without acknowledgment the argument and promotional language of Local Food Plus - the first to push the $10 weekly shift as a way to reduce CO2 emissions and create 10,000 jobs. The minister of education will have a tough time telling students they get an automatic F for plagiarizing but the premier doesn't.
Having said that, the aim of 10,000 jobs is worthy of support, but all that gets is policy.