Local Foods in the Early Childhood Setting: Part I
June 27, 2019
Navigating the Challenges of Sourcing and Buying Local Foods
Alyssa Ramuscak is a MHSc Nutrition Communication student from Ryerson University who recently completed a placement at the Nutrition Resource Centre. During her time with the Nutrition Resource Centre, Alyssa assisted in facilitating a three part workshop series with Region of Peel – Public Health to educate child care providers on healthy eating in the early years. In this two part blog post, Alyssa examines some of the challenges she faced and the key “takeaways” from facilitating a workshop on local foods.
“Old MacDonald had a farm. E, I, E, I, O! And on that farm he had a …?”
Old MacDonald may ring as a timeless nursery rhyme for many adults who have visited farms and picked their own produce as children…but with growing urbanization and the loss of rural land, many children are growing up in an urban-centric environment where they may not know what a farm looks like or where their food comes from.
During my placement at the Nutrition Resource Centre, I specifically focused on local foods in the child care setting, and how the early years could act as a catalyst to educate children about where their food comes from.
In a push to inform the public on local foods and to encourage the growth of a resilient local food system, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs created the Local Food Act, 2013. In doing so, the Act outlined actions that would help increase the public’s access to local foods, improve their food literacy, and encourage public sector organizations, like child care, to purchase local foods.
The Act also outlined a definition of local foods as any “food produced or harvested in Ontario” or any “food and beverages made in Ontario if they include ingredients produced or harvested in Ontario”.
Sounds simple, right?
Well, during my local food journey of scanning the literature and reviewing resources, and hunting down local foods in several of Peel Region’s grocery stores, I soon realized just how complex our food system is.
Challenge 1: Finding the Selling Factor
Many people have different reasons for purchasing local foods – whether it is to support their local farmers and economy, reduce their carbon footprint, or to enjoy the fresh taste. At the start of planning for the local food workshop, I was determined to find the “it” factor that would sell child care providers to jump on the local food bandwagon. Very quickly into my research, I realized that there truly wasn’t one reason why people should purchase local foods, rather a collection of reasons…but oftentimes, these reasons weren’t always clear cut or backed by strong evidence.
Before coming to NRC, I had always assumed that purchasing local foods was better for our environment. When we consider the potential distance some of our food travels, local foods may curb the effect that transportation has on our environment, through reducing energy use, pollution, and greenhouse gases (Edge, 2013). However, estimating the environmental impact of our food solely on “food miles” is a relatively simplistic viewpoint, especially given how extensive our food system is.
For example, if we consider the life cycle of canned tomatoes – from growing, harvesting, canning, transporting, storing, cooking, and then “wasting” or recycling – and the finite resources that go into each step (e.g., water, energy, labour), estimating the potential environmental impact of food can become very complex.
This was especially evident when I came across comparison studies that estimated the environmental impact of buying local food vs. imported food. For example, in one study that compared locally greenhouse grown tomatoes in the UK, to imported field grown tomatoes in Spain, it was found that the imported tomatoes were actually less detrimental to the environment. The study suggested that greenhouse grown tomatoes were more resource intensive, requiring farmers to use energy to maintain certain temperatures within the greenhouses and source out water (Edward-Jones, 2010). However, this wasn’t always the case for all comparison studies, adding to the complexity and confusion of what foods consumers should purchase when trying to reduce their environmental impact.
Challenge 2: Sourcing Local Foods
To provide examples of local foods at the workshop and better understand the availability of local foods in Peel grocery stores, I set out to source local products at several grocery stores like Walmart, Longo’s, and Real Canadian Superstore, using the Local Food Act, 2013’s local foods definition: “food produced or harvested in Ontario”. This exercise proved to be eye-opening and a much more difficult task than I anticipated.
Of the grocery stores I visited the most consistent local foods that I could find often sported the Foodland Ontario logo. In order for producers, processors, distributors, foodservice operators or public sector institutions to use the Foodland Ontario logo, their products must meet the Ontario food definitions. The comprehensive list of definitions was developed by Foodland Ontario with support from industry and has been consumer-tested. In fact, according to Foodland Ontario’s website almost 90 per cent of Ontarians recognize the logo, making it one of the most reliable tools to identifying local foods.
Despite the Foodland Ontario logo being a great indicator of local foods, I often found that between grocery stores, the use of the logo was sparse, with only a few selected products such as fresh produce, eggs, and dairy products consistently carrying the logo. Seasonality may be a potential reason for the sparseness of Foodland Ontario logo products at this time, but with the logo being available to producers and distributors free of charge and a broad list of food products allowed to carry the logo, like farmed seafood, poultry, meats, flours, and honey, I was disappointed by the lack of availability.
Besides the Foodland Ontario logo, determining what items may be local is often a challenge, as most products only carry the address the food was packaged at, capturing only a small leg of the potentially long journey that our food has taken.
Oftentimes, I came across signs touting “Product of Canada” labels with a Canadian grade designation, but upon further investigating, many of these products were not in fact truly Canadian, with apples from Chile and cherry tomatoes from the United States. As I would come to learn, Canadian grade designations, which establish a product’s quality based on factors like flavour, texture and colour, can be applied to both domestically produced AND foreign ingredients that are imported in bulk but repackaged in a registered Canadian facility (Megens, Roy, Murray, Cummings, 2014). However, the use of the voluntary claim “Product of Canada” has a relatively strict definition, with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency stating that for it to be used “all or virtually all major ingredients, processing, and labour used to make the food product [must be] Canadian.” These observations alone make me question whether the transparency of product origin labels needs to be investigated, especially when grocery stores are misusing claims on products.
Challenge 3: Co$t
When it comes to local foods, people will often cite the perceived cost as a deterrent to supporting their local food systems (Megens, Roy, Murray, Cummings, 2015). Cost is noted as one of the most important driving factors to our food purchasing habits, as people will choose foods that are cheaper and offer the best deals. Although local foods can sometimes be less expensive than imported foods, often seasonality, production cost, and supply can influence the cost (Edge, 2013). For instance, in the case of the strawberries at Longo’s, it can sometimes be difficult for local foods to compete when a $3 price separates them from imported goods.
Going into this presentation, I was aware that many licensed and home child care centres often operate within tight budgets. Selling them an idea of something that may already seem like it is out of reach was important to keep in mind.
To overcome this challenge, I focused my presentations on seasonality by using Peel’s Grown in Peel Buy Local Guide, and suggested strategies to work with suppliers and distributors to source the best, cost-effective, local foods. I also stressed that incorporating local foods into menu planning didn’t have to involve an overhaul of all meals and snacks, and provided simple tips like featuring one seasonal, local fruit or vegetable snack per week.
The Local Food Opportunity
Despite the challenges I faced within the grocery stores, the local food movement in Ontario has an optimistic future. In March 2019, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs outlined several initiatives to support Ontario’s Local Food Act, 2013’s final goal of removing red tape barriers and opening up the opportunity for local foods to be incorporated into the broader public sector. Examples of initiatives to tackle this goal included “creating a new, interactive, local food hubs map to connect local food businesses to potential new markets; providing easy-to-use tracking tools to measure procurement so organizations can set their own goals to increase their use of local food and track their success; and, making it easier to use the Foodland Ontario logo to promote local food.”
With the recent publication of the 2018-2019 Local Food Report kicking off the start to this year’s Local Foods Week, I was surprised to learn that Ontario is home to almost 50,000 farms that grow over 200 commodities.
With almost 50,000 farms settling in Ontario, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs taking a proactive approach to supporting local food initiatives, I am hopeful that more local foods will hit the shelves of our grocery stores and be offered within public sector institutions. Promotion and labelling on packaged goods will be a key step moving forward, in order to foster a transparent food environment where consumers can make informed decisions about their food.
- Edge J. (2013). Cultivating opportunities: Canada’s growing appetite for local foods. Retrieved from The Conference Board of Canada: http://www.actualitealimentaire.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/14-021_localfood_cfic_rpt.pdf
- Edwards-Jones G. (2010). Does eating local food reduce the environmental impact of food production and enhance consumer health? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 69:582-591. Doi: 10.1017?S00296651.10002004
- Megens S, Roy R, Murray D, Cummings H. (2014). Institutional local food procurement – A field guide for managers and cooks. Retrieved from the City of Thunder Bay: http://tbfoodstrategy.ca/files/3614/4975/7251/Appendix_B_-_Thunder_Bay_Local__Food_Procurement_Field_Guide_for_Managers_and_Cooks_Feb_2015.pdf
- Megens S, Roy R, Murray D, Cummings H. (2015). Institutional local food – Growing forward: A procurement plan. Retrieved from the City of Thunder Bay: http://www.tbfoodstrategy.ca/files/1514/4623/0902/Thunder_Bay_BPS_Report_March_23_2015.pdf