Food Businesses and Employment
Local farms and food processing are an important component of our economy. According to the 2013 Thunder Bay Multiplier Study, “many jobs were lost in Ontario as a result of the economic depression since 2008. However, food production related employment has been more or less stable as compared to other industries.” 30 The food processing and farming businesses also generate the highest annual revenue in Ontario and provide a significant number of both direct and indirect jobs. 31
Access To Local Food
Despite this, by and large, our food supply chain is not oriented towards local food and our infrastructure reflects this. Food tends to come into Thunder Bay from the western provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, via Winnipeg or Calgary. Some food is imported from the United States and southern Ontario via the Toronto Food Terminal. 32
The fact that food is mainly sourced from and aggregated in the western provinces before being shipped to Thunder Bay has a significant impact on the ability of grocery stores, restaurants, and public sector institutions to buy local food. Distribution channels are not set up to provide local and Ontario product. It also means that local processors and manufacturers who want to get into the supply chain and who are buying ingredients through the traditional distribution channels are more often than not buying non-Ontario ingredients. When that happens their finished product cannot be considered Ontario product.33
Distribution is starting to connect better with local food as grocery stores, restaurants, catering companies and institutions are starting to source food from the area. Many farmers are distributing their food to local grocery stores and restaurants on their own. Some distributors are beginning to source from local producers. Small local distributors may not have the advantage of a large warehousing facility for aggregating product, but they are usually able to be flexible in their buying habits, which means they are better equipped to flex with the seasonality of Ontario suppliers. Distributors based in the area often have a better understanding of the local landscape, as well as the communities and the products that are available within reach. Locally-based operators also tend to have smaller vehicles in their fleets than the larger competition, placing middle distance routes within their reach. 34
Online ordering platforms have sprung up to make it easier for people to access local food and to make it more cost efficient for growers. Online ordering platforms are beginning to extend across the northwest, creating linkages to Dryden and Rainy River, for instance. Farmers’ markets, pick-your-own operations, and community supported agriculture are other common ways that people have access to local food.
Local Food Processing and Storage
There are a growing number of businesses popping up in the Thunder Bay area that are doing further processing with local and non-local ingredients. Products range from teas, pasta and pasta sauce, perogies, preserves and canned goods, to baby foods, dairy products, locally roasted coffee and chocolate, beef jerky, bitters, locally milled and pressed flour, and much more. Although many of the businesses doing value-added processing are small—generally ranging from part-time businesses to up to 5 full-time staff—these businesses are thriving and there is potential for future growth and for new businesses to emerge and fill gaps in the market. There is a need to inventory the diversity of businesses doing value-added processing so that the sector can better be tracked, understood and supported.
More farmers are beginning to add infrastructure to their farms, such as storage buildings and equipment for further processing raw goods. These improvements make local foods available longer into the year, increase efficiencies, open up new markets, and improve revenues for growers. While gaps in infrastructure are beginning to slowly fill, there are still large holes. Thunder Bay, for instance, does not have the ability to process chicken. One reason for this and other products is that demand and supply need to grow to a point where volumes justify the investment in new facilities and equipment.
Existing systems, regulations, and missing infrastructure still present a number of challenges when it comes to accessing local food. Targeted investment, favourable legislation, regulations, research, and policy development will be essential in stimulating regional food production and processing.
Neighbourhood Level Infrastructure
There is a need for more neighbourhood level infrastructure, such as small-scale markets, that would make local food more accessible to communities, particularly low-income communities. At the same time, more supports are needed for community-based programs and initiatives, such as community kitchens and community gardens, since most are volunteer run and are therefore unable to offer regular programming and use these spaces to their full potential. More resources and coordination would certainly increase the demand for, access to, and impact of these spaces.
If urban agriculture is to be re-introduced into urban areas on a larger scale, there is a need to re-imagine green spaces in urban areas. At the moment, boulevards, parks, and institutional lands—like university grounds—lack diversity and are generally underused. These spaces can be transformed into places for growing food. It would be a huge boon to see gardens replace grass on boulevards, park space be dedicated to outdoor bake ovens and urban farms, and space along recreational trails be naturalized to provide more habitat for pollinators or foods that can be harvested. Oftentimes boulevards are next to houses, parks are in neighbourhoods, and institutional grounds are near schools and health care facilities. Diversifying these spaces could be part of a wellness or education strategy. New forms of infrastructure will be needed as well. For example, year-round greenhouses, aquaponics facilities, re-purposed industrial buildings for storage or distribution, and a permanent farmers’ market building would all help increase production and make local food available all year.
Food Waste Diversion
National studies indicate that a lot of waste is generated across the food chain—from farm production, distribution, retail to consumption. More than $31 billion worth of food is wasted every year in Canada. Individuals waste about 47% of all food wasted in Canada. Food manufacturing and processing is also responsible for as much as one-fifth of the food wasted across the country. Ten percent of food waste happens on farm and retailers waste another 10%. Restaurants and hotels waste a further 9% and the rest is wasted at processing facilities, food terminals, or during transportation. 35 Some institutions, businesses, and individuals are diverting food waste; however, the amount pales in comparison to the overall amount of waste generated. There is enormous opportunity to ramp up food waste management by analyzing waste streams towards strategic diversion, and implementing solutions such as curbside pick-up of organic material. A sustainable food system requires that waste is treated as a resource to be recycled back into agricultural production.