April 18, 2003
Last week, farmers, processors, distributors, retailers and chefs participated in a conference about local food sponsored by the Toronto Food Policy Council. They came to network, develop a local food cookbook, create an electronic marketplace for local food dubbed “O-Bay” and make the case for eating local. Toronto’s historic Montgomery Inn provided a storied setting.
Retailers cautioned that developing a market based on local food takes time, especially if the local culture still needs to be developed or is dominated by fast food. They questioned if consumers still know what to do with unique products. They recommended that farmers consider using distributors to create a steady flow of product, keep their products in the consciousness of more retailers and persuade these distributors to highlight local products on their lists. They were interested in developing guidelines for small growers and urged them to focus on specialties.
Their ideal is to serve people who want to eat well — the foundation of health. They presented themselves as an alternative to the long distance; “cheap food” system dominated by big box stores and questioned our awareness of the hidden environment and health costs of fast food.
Chefs asked for quality — meaning fresh — and for consistency of supply – meaning consistency in every sense of the word. It doesn’t matter what size a vegetable is, chefs just want them all to be the same size. They want reliability and convenience of delivery — meaning a fixed day of the week and delivery definitely between 2:30 and 5:00 p.m. FedEx it if you have to.
Their ideal is to serve the food of the region – food that reflects local soil and climate, and the history and culture of the district. While chefs were unequivocal in their praise for Ontario vegetables in general, they want food from a specific region, a specific farm that is legendary. While Ontario may have the best of land, a great climate, and reasonable prices, chefs want to make food a bigger part of our traditions and economy and are convinced that local food is an extra level of service that can win a better price.
Locally produced food has often been equated with cheaper food. Many farmers at farmers markets cater to those who buy in bulk for home processing and canning projects.
There is a much bigger future available to local food. It means replacing the image of food by the bushel at very reasonable prices with cuisine with the farmer’s face on it, the chef’s expert presentation, and every buyer honoured as a connoisseur. Then we will see local food become storied food, a “must have” for all.
Elbert van Donkersgoed
This commentary was first published as Corner Post, Farm & Countryside Commentary #281.