Cultivating the social and environmental benefits of local food production

Bravo to the City of Vancouver for adopting the Vancouver Food Strategy, which I assume will happen even though I’m writing this before a vote ...

Bravo to the City of Vancouver for adopting the Vancouver Food Strategy, which I assume will happen even though I’m writing this before a vote has been taken.

In years past, this might have been seen as a radical document, but the latest evolution of food policy in Vancouver is really just keeping up with dozens of other major cities around the world working on “bolstering the resilience of [the local] food system.”

I will never forget former city manager Judy Roger’s comment when city council started delving into food policy a decade ago: “Please don’t add a line item to my budget to feed everyone in the city.” Taxpayers needn’t worry; that’s not what this strategy is proposing. Its overarching goal is to “increase city and neighbourhood food assets by 50% by the year 2020.”

It will focus on five areas: food production, empowering residents, food access, food processing/distribution and food waste. For example, it proposes enabling commercial food production in the city, creating an urban farming business licence category and allowing direct sales from “farms” on city lots.

From a business point of view, it’s important to remember that the biggest value of the food strategy is social and environmental, not economic.

Municipal and regional food strategies get really challenging and exciting when they take aim at adding “green” local jobs. The lure is irresistible. Toronto-based Local Food Plus worked out that if 10,000 families in a province shifted $10 a week from buying imported food to local food purchases, they would add $5.2 million to the local economy.

On the challenging side, the city’s strategy dances around the proposed New City Market – one way to address “gaps in infrastructure to grow, process, warehouse and distribute local and sustainable foods” – one of the city’s recommendations.

The report talks about “facilitating the creation of innovative food infrastructure that may include a food business incubator or central food hub.”

Unfortunately, the New City Market – a noble idea led by the Farmers’ Market Society, focused on a permanent farmers market site with processing, storage and distribution services – has gone nowhere for years, in spite of six-figure spending to figure out a business plan that makes sense. It should be turned over to actual farmers and food buyers to come up with a model that makes financial sense for them – or scrapped.

While Vancouver nibbles at the edges of transforming the economics of our food system, a team at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey is going for the gusto.

“Southwestern B.C. spends $5.5 billion on food, and 98% of that money leaves the community,” says Kent Mullinix, a visionary ex-commercial orchardist leading the South-West B.C. Food System Design and Planning Project.

“Who’s getting the wealth? This is a huge economic sector. Let’s regionalize it by integrating regional production, packaging, processing, storage, distribution and sales. … This will generate more income for operators, more jobs and ancillary economic activity. We have to balance the tech-intensive high-input export farms with ecologically based low input local and regional producers.”

Mullinix is knocking on the doors of every council in Metro Vancouver, a number of which have already committed funding to this bold three-year initiative, as has the Real Estate Foundation of BC to the tune of $300,000.

Kwantlen’s plan, with a highly ambitious three-year goal of creating a “roadmap of prioritized steps … for increased food security and self-reliance,” will lift all of southwest B.C.’s food systems – and our agricultural economy – to a new level if they can pull it off. •

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