People shopping at farmers market in Ontario in late summer.

How to Improve Northern Ontario Food Systems: The 4 Next Steps

By Alison Earls, BA., MEDI.

Over the summer I was thrilled to work as a research assistant for Food Locally Embedded Globally Engaged (FLEdGE). I grew up in a small rural farming community food and food systems were a central part of my life from a young age, so getting the chance to study these systems, specifically infrastructure for Northern Ontario food systems, was a dream come true.

Although I have experience with local food and food systems research, I was a bit out of my comfort zone with the geography of the project, which took place in Northern Ontario. I am very familiar with the opportunities and obstacles that are available for food and farms in Southern Ontario but, at the beginning of the project, food and farming in Northern Ontario was new to me. Before starting the project, I would have said that the food systems in Northern and Southern Ontario have similar challenges and opportunities, however this is not the case. Although Northern Ontario’s local food movement is gaining momentum— businesses and support organizations are working to improve local food security; provincial and federal governments are allocating more funding to making local food more accessible; and residents are continuing to support and champion these movements—local food movements still face significant challenges like getting local food to market. They also lack infrastructure, which prevents the sharing of resources and inhibits communities’ ability to access food most efficiently.

The unique challenges facing Northern Ontario local food movements are twofold: first the infrastructure and resources present in Northern Ontario have not been mapped to the same extent as they have been in other regions in Ontario, making collaboration and communication between organizations with similar objectives difficult. Second, although some funding is being funnelled into Northern food systems, not enough funds are being invested in improving both transportation infrastructure and processing facilities. Northern Ontario food systems do not receive enough financial or logistical support from government organizations or research institutions, which prevents meaningful improvements to local food security.

In order to improve food systems in Northern Ontario, four key steps should be taken:

Step 1: Identify Existing Producers & Distributors

First, identify all wholesalers, retailers, food co-ops, food hubs, and online distribution hubs across Northern Ontario. By identifying all Northern communities and organizations that focus on delivering local food, collaboration and cooperation between organizations can increase. If these organizations are able to share resources and funding, the rate at which Northern food systems can develop will also increase. Since Northern Ontario is such a large, sparsely populated geographical space compared to other regions, consolidated information on existing producers and distributors would allow individuals who may not directly interact to connect and collaborate.

Step 2: Conduct a Transportation Scan

Next, a scan of Northern Ontario’s transportation infrastructure needs to be completed. This scan should outline communities’ access to roads, the transportation methods available and currently used to move food, and routes that producers or distributors currently use to deliver food. Transportation within and between communities is one of the largest obstacles Northern Ontario food systems face. By increasing awareness of existing infrastructure, individuals delivering products between communities will be able to determine the most efficient route. Also, if multiple producers or distributors exist within a community, combining delivery routes into one logistical plan will allow organizations to save resources and funds. If available transportation methods are mapped on a community basis, gaps can be identified and resources can be pooled to address any needs.

Step 3: Conducting a Scan of Support Organizations

In Northern Ontario, many groups and organizations are dedicated to improving local food systems but individuals are often unaware of these groups, both in and outside of their community. Infrastructure that supports local food needs to be identified, including research organizations that have a strong food focus, programs that centre on the delivery of local food, and the clubs, societies, or associations that support these activities. By compiling and distributing a list of local food organizations and groups, connectivity between food organizations and collaboration on food projects will increase, making food systems in Northern Ontario more robust.

Step 4: Increase Physical Infrastructure

Finally, a scan of Northern Ontario food infrastructure needs to be completed, gaps in physical infrastructure—including cold storage facilities, abattoirs, and other food processing plants—need to be identified, and funding needs to be allocated to developing infrastructure in communities where a need is present. It is important to identify physical infrastructure so that producers and distributors can become more efficient when using and sharing these resources. Currently, in Northern Ontario not all communities or regions have access to physical infrastructure and producers or distributors often ship their products to other regions for processing. A comprehensive map of processing plants would allow producers to process their products at closer to home. It would also uncover gaps in infrastructure to allow government organizations and research institutions to address community needs and allow for local food system advocates and to better communicate their needs to funders.

You can read the full report here.