I'm lucky to work in an independent retail bookstore. I'm 'full time stationery' but I do get to see the newest books. Over the last two days (with many regular customers away for school break) I actually managed to read an entire chapter in Sarah Elton's book 'Locavore' (HarperCollins, March 2010).
The chapter, Local Food for the Millions, talks about one of the big questions of localizing food: can food be more local for really big urban places like Toronto?
My quick answer, before even reading the chapter, was: we'd better be able to ... before we have to do so.
Elton takes us through a bit of the history of the Toronto Food Terminal. Huge it may be, but it does seem that it is a place where some farmers can bring their produce and sell directly (if they have the time, inclination, resources). The scarier aspect of modern food distribution is the power of the two main grocery store chains (here in Canada, Loblaw and Metro); their buyers decide what products will be featured on stores shelves, thereby influencing what is manufactured and grown to be processed. Also, the groceries stock their stores on a schedule called 'just-in-time replenishment' which means that the stores don't keep much on hand and there are always trucks going back and forth along a route to keep shelves stocked. I've heard the statistic that any big city only has three days of food on the shelves. Elton lists the supplies at the grocery chain distribution centres as: 3 days worth of fresh produce, eight to nine days of frozen foods and fourteen days worth of dry goods. Higher numbers on some goods, but sure not enough to avert some serious disturbances if things ever went really wrong.
Elton goes on to some things that indicate the beginning of a turn-around to more local.
Four (4) percent of food sales are through sources other than main grocery stores, for example farmer's markets and co-ops. Laugh at my enthusiasm if you want to, but I figured it would still be less than 1 percent. There's a group called Farmers' Markets Canada, and it estimates that over one billion dollars in food sales a year happens in Canada's 500 farmers' markets. Again here, you may think that 500 is a small number - it is! - but it's up considerably from ten years ago.
Granted that not every farmer is inclined to come out to a farmers' market, or has the time to do so. Granted that a lot of food is needed to supply a city of several million, like Toronto. So, there need to be organizations like Local Food Plus (LFP) that encourages institutions like Toronto's New College to commit to purchasing a certain percentage of local, sustainable food. LFP also started a certification system so that it checks out that a supplier really is not just local but is growing food along a checklist of healthy practices.
Elton mentions some other ideas, like urban farms and grocery stores that purchase directly from farms, and local growing of foods that go into the varied ethnic recipes that are becoming standard for a diverse city like Toronto.
She interviewed Harriet Friedmann, who is a fellow at the Centre for International Studies out of University of Toronto. Friedmann's positive vision for the future involves far more urban fruit and vegetable growing, greenhouses, solar systems for water, a 'whole city ... less segregated from the ecosystem in which we live'. She says that when people connect to their food system 'they feel good, they are attracted to it.' I really want to look up Friedmann, see if there's an online talk by her). I think she'd make a wonderful double bill with Joan Dye Gussow who wrote This Organic Life.
Just one chapter is all I've had a chance to read. I've put 'Locavore' on hold at the library and once it's through cataloguing (I told you it was a new book) I'll read the rest.
Until next time, Why's Woman