In 2013, a new project—the Thunder Bay and Area Food Strategy—got off the ground in northern Ontario. Drawing inspiration from such trail blazing cities such as Vancouver and Toronto, the Food Strategy is intended as a comprehensive and action-oriented approach to building an economically robust, resilient, and equitable food system. The action plan is based on seven pillars of a healthy and sustainable food system, and was endorsed in 2014 by the City of Thunder Bay and 6 adjoining rural municipalities.
Municipal involvement in food issues isn’t exactly new, but it’s only in the last decade that municipalities have started to come around to the idea that food is an important urban issue. Persistent rates of hunger, increasing rates of diet-related illnesses, loss of farmland and fewer food producers are just some of the reasons that the idea of food as an area of municipal governance is gaining traction.
A report published by the Canadian Agricultural Policy Institute in 2013 found that 64 local and regional municipalities in Canada are working to improve the food system in their area, using a mix of municipal policies, programs and civil society interventions. Since that report was published, an ever increasing number of municipalities have been developing Food Charters, Food Strategies, and Food Policy Councils as a way to improve the health of their communities, the environment, and economies while supporting regional food self-reliance. Municipalities are recognizing that food provides a solution-oriented approach to addressing complex challenges facing local communities and helps meet some of their broader objectives around culture, beautification, economic development, poverty and climate change.
In the few short years that the Thunder Bay and Area Food Strategy has been underway, it has made significant gains in a number of areas, with one of the most notable being local economic development.
In 2013 the Food Strategy began working with the City of Thunder Bay’s Supply Management Division, Health Unit, Thunder Bay Federation of Agriculture, local producers, processors, and distributors to increase the amount of local foods purchased by the City for its Long-Term Care Facilities and Day Cares. As a result of these efforts, in 2015, the City purchased 27.75% from Ontario and regional growers and processors, amounting to just over $558,000 worth of food. Last year, Supply Management piloted a forward purchasing contract with a local farm. This forward contract guaranteed the City product at a predictable price, while ensuring the farm had a market for its goods.. The City plans to expand the number of forward contracts with local growers next year to four.
From early on, many departments within the City of Thunder Bay have become active supporters and leaders in driving change, innovation, and civic engagement around food. For instance, in 2014, the Thunder Bay Economic Development Commission (CEDC) named “regional food” as one of its strategic priorities for 2014-2017. Since then, CEDC has led, participated in, and funded workshops, forums, tours, and research projects aimed at supporting the area’s food and farming businesses An example of such initiative includes the two-day forest food entrepreneur workshop led by Ontario Nature. The region’s boreal forest is home to over 120 edible plant species that are both an important source for personal harvesting, and representative of economic opportunities for new businesses.
Thunder Bay Tourism is another city department that recognized early on the potential for food to contribute to a vibrant tourism scene, bringing more dollars into the urban centre. In partnership with the Food Strategy, Chamber of Commerce, CEDC, Tourism Northern Ontario and Confederation College, Thunder Bay Tourism organized a ground breaking food tourism event in January 2016. This event brought together 150 food processors, producers, and distributors to build connections and develop experiences and products that would be attractive to both local residents and tourists. Because of events like this, the growing demand for local food, and a more favourable local and provincial policy and funding environment, small and medium-sized businesses are increasingly looking to expand and diversify their businesses.
In response to this, the Food Strategy is now leading a food and agricultural market study to identify current demand and supply of local foods, assess capacity and market potential, and determine infrastructure, training, labour, and other needs to grow the local food economy. This study has the participation and financial support of 12 local agricultural associations and economic development organizations, and is funded primarily through Growing Forward 2.
Through its many initiatives, the Thunder Bay and Area Food Strategy has led projects that are reflective of community needs and opportunities. It has fostered a joint approach between not-for-profits, public health, the business community, and local government to collaboratively solve issues while building trust and communication across sectors. Projects such as the Thunder Bay and Area Food Strategy also directly support the province’s objectives of growing and diversifying food production and processing by working with multiple sectors to stimulate demand for local food and supporting emerging sectors.
For more information on the Food Strategy, including the Food Strategy document, Implementation Plan, key projects, and Community Food Security Report Card, visit tbfoodstrategy.ca.