Developing an equitable and sustainable food system depends on strong and supportive infrastructure. Food storage, processing, and distribution services are integral parts of the infrastructure that move food from the farm, forest and watershed to our plates.
Only 70 years ago, most food consumed in the cities of Fort William and Port Arthur was grown in backyard gardens or on nearby farms, or hunted and foraged from the surrounding forests and lakes. Farmers and fishers sold directly to consumers, at farmers’ markets, or to distributors who supplied independent food stores. The regional food system began to change dramatically in the mid-20th century as the first supermarket opened here in the 1950s and the TransCanada Highway was completed through the area in the 1960s. Today, long-distance truck transportation has become the primary means of moving food, as transportation networks, food suppliers and distributors have become more globalized and as consumer buying has favoured big box food stores offering processed and fresh foods mainly from elsewhere.
Increasing interest in a more regionalized food system reflects greater awareness of the environmental, social and economic costs of a globalized food system. Trucking food from far away shifts benefits from the regional economy to elsewhere, while contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and a disconnect between residents and where their food comes from. Our increasingly industrialized food system has also left the Thunder Bay area without centralized storage and with very little food processing or agri-business infrastructure.
Agricultural economic impact studies in Canada and the U.S. have demonstrated many times over the income and employment gains to be made from strengthening local supply chains. Though highly dependent on the locale and commodity in question, buying local food has a multiplier effect of 1.4 to 2.6 throughout the wider economy. 1 The multiplier effect is the amount of local economic activity that is triggered by the purchase of any one item. Community economics tells us that the more a dollar circulates in a defined region, and the faster it circulates, the more economic and social stability it creates. It is estimated that if every household in Ontario spent $10 a week on regional food, we would have an additional $2.4 billion in our regional economy at the end of the year and create 10,000 new jobs. 2 In 2013, a multiplier workforce study found that the food production sector in Thunder Bay District has an average workforce multiplier effect of 1.7. This means that in Northwestern Ontario, every 1,000 jobs at local farms and food processors support 700 additional jobs indirectly among suppliers and retailers. The study also identified a need to address current infrastructure gaps, such as a regional distribution centre, processing facilities and storage in order to enhance the growth of the region’s food sector. 3