Food systems work addresses some very complex problems. It interacts with the many challenges of the global food system: think corporate control at all steps in the food system, industrial scale and centralized processing infrastructure, underpaid and undervalued farm workers, and unsustainable monocrop farms. When combined, these lead to the production of cheap, globally distributed food that can undermine local food businesses and the value and importance of small-scale farms and farmers.
Developing a regional food system network demands a shared understanding of the issues and cross-sectoral collaboration in working towards common goals to create system level change.
A part of creating a more resilient, re-localized and decentralized food system is having more than just this one global food system. Our work includes finding ways to nurture and support smaller scale sustainable farms, local markets, and regional processing and distribution infrastructure. We also aim to find ways to make the food that is grown here more accessible to everyone who lives here.
With COVID-19, we have experienced the reality of what food shortages, supply disruptions and the inequities of our food system can look like – the need for more diverse food systems has never been more clear.
Often, the ability to move the dial on key food system issues simply requires a story of what is possible. We endeavor to share the opportunities and challenges that reflect the experiences of those involved in the North Okanagan food system in three key areas:
- economic prosperity,
- environmental sustainability
- acceptable access to local food
The following outlines our key issues/challenges and opportunities as they relate to our key areas of impact and the vision that we have created as a network to build a stronger, more resilient and vibrant local food system.
Growing Our Local Food Economy
Our food system is the foundation of our economy—everyone needs to eat! A prosperous local food economy happens when greater amounts and variety of locally produced and processed food is purchased locally. According to the RDNO’s Regional Agricultural Plan (2015), consumers spent $300 million dollars on food products in one year in the North Okanagan. If more of these dollars could be captured locally, not only would this help our food producers and processors to thrive, but the dollars would circulate to support other local businesses, instead of being taken out of the region. This indirect benefit to the economy of local purchases is known as the multiplier effect.
Our small and medium scale farmers and food processors are up against some significant system level barriers! We want and need these businesses to thrive and grow in numbers, and we also need to figure out how the average person can access their food products at a scale that truly supports the farmers and is convenient for the consumers. That’s a big challenge!
From a systems perspective, in the work we do to strengthen the local food system as a whole, the opportunity is to always be thinking about how to increase markets for and support more local, small and medium scale farmers and food processors who face the following challenges:
- Competing with the cheap cost of imported food
- Navigating inappropriate food safety regulations that are more applicable for large scale enterprises, and are costly and time consuming for small producers and processors to comply with
- Having difficulties meeting year-round demand
- Lacking in local infrastructure (to aggregate produce, cold storage, warehouse, packing, distribution, small-scale meat processing and custom slaughter capacity)
- Facing limited access to diverse market options
- Struggling with a chronic shortage of skilled labour and the lack of training to give people the necessary skills
The opportunities are also plentiful, and include:
- Exploring innovative ways to provide access to farmland (especially for new farmers)
- Joining up the missing pieces in the value chain that extends from farmer to processor, wholesaler, distributor, retailer, caterer and finally, consumer.
- Forming networks within the various groups in the food system to address common problems with regulations, infrastructure, managing costs or accessing markets.
Improving the Environmental Sustainability of Our Food System
Agricultural practices have the capacity to protect and regenerate soil, water, land and biodiversity, and we also know that some forms of agriculture contribute to environmental degradation and climate change. According to the EAT-Lancet Commission, food is “the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth.” (Summary Report of the EAT-Lancet Commission, Jan 16, 2019.). The way we grow food presents both a tremendous opportunity and great responsibility.
Key to building a strong regional food system means finding ways to improve the environmental sustainability of our farming practices and agri-food businesses; becoming stewards of the land such that our practices support natural ecosystems and systems; ultimately building a food system that is resilient to climate change; and minimizing and reintegrating waste at every step of the food system. We would say that without a sustainable food system, there is no sustainable future.
The challenges are many, including:
- Dealing with the impacts of climate change, including:
- Increased frequency of extreme weather events, leading to wildfires, drought and flooding extremes
- Uncertainty and difficulty accessing reliable water
- The high cost of land, prohibiting access to new farmers and affecting the ability of farmers to build ecosystem services into their farming practices
The opportunities to build a more sustainable food system require us to consider how to create more sustainable and resilient agriculture that can withstand and adapt to shocks like climate change and pandemics. Ways forward include:
- Encouraging environmental farm planning
- Protecting natural waterways to support both our salmon and agriculture
- Strategically allocating water for agriculture and promoting water reuse
- Managing manure waste and supporting composting across the food system
- Supporting education and research opportunities across sectors
- Paying farmers to provide ecosystem services
- Assisting farmers to find ways to create more energy efficient farms
Increasing Access to Healthy Local Food
This means that EVERYONE in our region has access to more of the food that is grown in the place where we live. Having access to local food means that we can get these foods from a number of different places in our region. For example, in grocery stores (big and small), at farmers markets, at restaurants, from caterers, in schools (at all levels) and health care institutions.
Poverty and economic inequality, not scarcity, have been clearly identified as the drivers of chronic food insecurity, meaning we need adequate income compared to the cost of living. Tackling food insecurity and increasing access to healthy local food, needs to be combined with income support measures (like universal basic income), decentralizing/re-localizing the food system (so that there are more places in our communities where we can find food that is grown here), and community based approaches and programs!
Barriers to regional food access at the household level include:
- Inconvenient to source food from many sources
- Don’t know where to purchase local food
- Limited hours of farmers’ markets
- Cost – our efficient global food-distribution system has made that food cheap
- Poverty and transportation barriers
- Lack of access to land for traditional hunting and food gathering
Barriers to regional food access at the institutional or retail level include:
- Inconvenient/impractical to purchase from a variety of food businesses/suppliers
- Inconsistent supply and insufficient volumes
- Cost (institutional cost margins are thin)
- Local product not available from wholesalers/suppliers
- Regulatory barriers
- Existing purchasing contracts
The close proximity of our schools, institutions, businesses, and communities to our region’s many and diverse food producers, provides a tremendous opportunity to increase access to local food. Local champions are already turning ideas into action to source more food locally in schools and post-secondary institutions. A national school food program could provide opportunities to support economic recovery and increase access to local food by utilizing small scale entrepreneurs and producers. There is interest in increasing the food processing, storage and distribution capability of our region which in turn could better support local procurement at a scale required by institutions, restaurants and food retail. The North Okanagan is a growing agri-tourism destination and as this sector grows, it may also provide more opportunities for local residents to access local food.
At the community and household level, there are opportunities for the development and expansion of food programs such as the Good Food Box, community gardens and produce sharing initiatives. Local governments are interested in how they can use policy and publicly held land to increase community food security. Developing relationships with Indigenous peoples and increasing cross-cultural education are important steps to open access to land and increase access to traditional foods. Collaboration, innovation, policy, and commitment to new ways of working are some of the many approaches that will be needed to overcome barriers to increasing access to local food.