Going local on food systems

(Graphic by Lena Yang).

(Graphic by Lena Yang).

Behind the plates that get served at our tables every day, there are intricate infrastructures and economies that control how and where food is produced, processed and distributed. According to Alison Blay-Palmer, an associate professor of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, this current food system may not be the most favourable for our localcommunities.

The issue lies within the fact that the majority of food is imported from external sources. Blay-Palmer estimates that $4.3 billion dollars in food is brought into Ontario every year, and this food  could be produced or processed within Ontario itself. This brings about missed economic, environmental and health opportunities.

“The food system is not ideal right now. It’s not optimal,” said Blay-Palmer. “We have farmers who can’t make a good living farming. We have people who suffer from diet related diseases. We have people that can’t get access to healthy foods. And we have communities that are buying food from very far away — and this is food we could be producing locally.”

Thus, Blay-Palmer pushes for locally driven food systems through her involvement in the research group, Nourishing Ontario, which addresses policy issues related to alternative food systems in Ontario. Nourishing Ontario also works and communicates with other regions of Canada, as well as notable international collaborators, such as the European Union and the United Nations.

“The goal is to build more sustainable food communities in Ontario and share that information with people in our international and national network,” explained Blay-Palmer.
One example of a problem the group has been examining is the apparent lack of food processing in food distribution facilities across southwestern Ontario.

“If we have more of those processing facilities and distribution opportunities for farmers in our local communities, more money stays in our local communities,” said Blay-Palmer. “There is more of a closed-loop kind of economic development than if we send the vegetables somewhere else to be processed or buy processed vegetables from somewhere else.”

Blay-Palmer and her associates are working to figure out the barriers that are preventing food processing from being integrated and help to facilitate the necessary infrastructure to overcome these barriers.

After 15 years in this field, Blay-Palmer is hopeful and excited about the direction that food systems and awareness about food systems is going.

“There’s a lot of different groups working on national food policies,” she explained. “There’s also a local food act that’s being worked on at the provincial level.”

Blay-Palmer noted that WLU is also part of this movement by offering several different  courses on sustainability and sustainable food systems. The sustainability office on campus has also grown a  medicinal garden sponsored by the school.

As a last note to the students of WLU, Blay-Palmer suggested, “Think about what you’re eating. And also about [your] communities. Go visit a farmers’ market.”

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