By: Debora Van Brenk
Published: The London Free Press, October 11, 2012
 

Local food clusters — to help fruits of the land get from Southwestern Ontario farmers to nearby consumers — could help tap into some of the $18-billion bounty of food that’s otherwise imported into Ontario each year, a new report says.

The study on sustainable food systems says Southwestern Ontario could, with concerted effort, extend its economic reach well beyond what it’s already doing.

“There is enormous potential,” said co-author and researcher Tom Schell. “When we crunched the job numbers, we were blown away by the number of jobs we can create: somewhere between 150,000 and 300,000 jobs. There isn’t anything out there that comes close to having that kind of impact.”

Food clusters would be mini-networks that help connect food producers with processors, institutions such as schools and independent stores and households.

Right now, for example, a restaurateur wanting to buy and serve a menu with locally grown leek, veal and strawberries usually has to search out multiple sources, or instead source other ingredients through central distribution networks in Toronto.

A food hub — either a formal or informal group to co-ordinate logistics, food safety and traceability — would enable a network of nearby suppliers and buyers to make those connections.

That, in turn, improves what Schell calls the “quadruple bottom line” — having positive economic, environmental, social and nutritional benefits.

Food that’s produced and consumed locally encourages local jobs on- and off-farm, reduces food waste, reduces transportation costs and energy use, vouchsafes nutrition and encourages innovation, the report says.

It also builds self-reliance, one key to sustainability, as Ontario’s population grows, Schell said.

The project and report, with more than 60 recommendations developed after 18 months of research, is a joint effort of the London Training Centre and the Southwest Economic Alliance (SWEA) and was supported with money from the province and by dozens of other organizations in the region.

“It’s time to talk about this as an economic opportunity,” said David Corke of the London Training Centre.

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