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A Fresh Approach to Food: Local Food Systems Planning in Waterloo Region

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I Introduction to Local Food System Planning

The importance of consuming local food burst into the wider public consciousness in 2007 (1). That year, Oxford University Press gave word of the year honours to "locavore," a term that refers to those who try to eat only food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius (2). While the importance of consuming local food reached "a tipping point" at that time, a huge amount of background activity has been going on for many years to arrive at this position (3). The Region of Waterloo Public Health (ROWPH) has worked since the fall of 2000 to develop a comprehensive local food systems planning approach. This article will highlight the Region's action, which has been part of this background activity that has fuelled the public's desire to reconnect to local food and all it has to offer.

ROWPH defines a healthy community food system as one in which all residents have access to and can afford to buy, safe, nutritious and culturally-acceptable food that sustains the local environment, economy and rural communities (4). Evidence suggests that "the local food supply can affect the nutrition environment of the local population, in that the food produced, distributed and sold within the region can play a major role in how well the population eats" (5). In addition, increased consumption of local food decreases long distance food transport, preserves agricultural economies, farmland and rural communities, strengthens relationships and builds a sense of place.

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II A Catalyst and Facilitator of a Healthy Community Food System

Waterloo Regional Council endorsed "A Healthy Community Food System Plan for Waterloo Region" in April 2007. The plan was built from several research studies, community consultations and local initiatives, and now serves as a road map for local food systems planning in Waterloo Region. A brief description of some of the ways the public health department has acted as a catalyst and facilitator of a healthy community food system follows.

Raising Awareness

ROWPH produces a wide range of reports on food and the economy, food and the environment, food and nutritional health status, food and the built environment and rural health. A selection of published studies is listed in the Related Resources section.

Building Capacity

ROWPH  was instrumental in the creation of Foodlink Waterloo Region, a community non-profit that links local consumers to local farmers. In 2001-2002, the public health department and Foodlink partnered to launch the Buy Local! Buy Fresh! Map, a resource which aims to promote direct farm sales and create brand recognition for local food. Foodlink is now a self-supporting, independent non-profit organization that offers a range of services and activities to link local consumers and local farmers. The Buy Local! Buy Fresh! Map will be published for the seventh year in 2008 (with Foodlink as the sole project sponsor) and has been replicated in several other regions across Ontario.

Developing Policy
    
ROWPH worked with its colleagues in the regional planning department to incorporate access to healthy food and preservation of agricultural lands into the Region's 20-year growth management strategy as well as its official plan. Later in 2008, public health will work with the Region's purchasing department to see if the Region's Green Purchasing Program (which identifies environmentally-protective purchasing choices) can be expanded to include the purchase of local food.

Cultivating Partnerships

ROWPH collaborates with a wide range of community partners on various projects to create and support a healthy local food system.

  • Neighbourhood Produce Stands - The public health department received funding to pilot two neighbourhood markets in 2007 and to further expand to five markets in 2008. The purpose of the neighbourhood markets pilot is: to increase access to fresh local produce in neighbourhoods with limited food access; to increase consumption of fresh produce; to increase social connections in neighbourhoods; and, to support local farmers.
  • Community Nutrition Worker Program - This is a community-based program which has been administered and funded by ROWPH since 1988. Local organizations recruit and supervise interested individuals to run community programs in neighbourhoods or communities of interest. These "community nutrition workers" use their knowledge of nutrition and food to increase nutrition knowledge and food security skills of families and individuals.
  • Woolwich Healthy Communities Coalition - The Coalition sponsors an annual event to highlight local food. In April 2008, over 400 Woolwich Township residents attended this event that showcased efforts to localize the Waterloo Region food economy. ROWPH serves on this Committee and provides administrative and communications support.
  • Diggable Communities Collaborative - Created in the summer of 2006, the Collaborative's members are the Community Garden Network of Waterloo Region (CGN), Opportunities Waterloo Region and ROWPH. The Collaborative received funds from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to strengthen and expand the existing community garden movement. This initiative builds on the CGN's work since 1997 to provide solutions to challenges faced by volunteer-run gardens. These include provision of training opportunities, recruitment of volunteer garden coordinators as well as securing water supply, compost, wood chips, gardening tools, sheds and fences for each community garden. The public health department was a founding member of the CGN and offers it ongoing administration, coordination and facilitation services.

Developing System-Wide Networks

Over 100 people attended the public launch event for the Region of Waterloo Food Systems Roundtable in November 2007 and the group held its first official meeting in January 2008. The Roundtable's eighteen members represent, among others, farmers, emergency food providers, food manufacturers and distributors, academics, urban agriculture advocates and organic food advocates. The Roundtable will oversee implementation of the local food systems plan and champion a healthy local food system by raising awareness of food systems issues and communicating with a common voice to promote action. ROWPH serves as a member of the Roundtable and also provides ongoing administrative and logistical support.

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III Local Efforts Lead to Local Successes

It is difficult to track effect of a complex multi-sectoral system with many players although several project-based evaluations have proved promising. Other successes are outlined below.

Raising Awareness

  • Gaining Community Buy-in. Local food systems planning is complex and to some degree conceptual and it has taken time to win support from community stakeholders. The ongoing awareness-raising and information-sharing has proven crucial to gaining buy-in. As more initiatives have sprung up this has become less difficult, since it is easier to explain food systems work by using practical examples.
  • A Hot Topic. Increased interest in healthy local food systems from public health professionals, planners, academics, foundations and professional bodies has led to a flurry of reports and research studies which gives credibility to the Region's efforts.

Building Capacity

  • Strengthening the Local Economy. ROWPH's work to create Foodlink has proven invaluable in terms of building capacity to bolster the local economy. For example, Foodlink helped develop the Elmira Produce Auction Cooperative (EPAC), a group operated by members of the local farming community that sells locally-grown produce three times a week by means of an auction.
  • Increased Yield. According to Statistics Canada, local production of total vegetables (excluding greenhouse vegetables) increased by 129.1 % in Waterloo Region between 2001 and 2006 while the provincial and national data indicated decreases for these crops during the same time period: - 8.6 % in Ontario and - 6.5 % in Canada (6). It is likely that EPAC has been an impetus for farmers to grow more vegetables.

Developing Policy

  • Local Policy Partners. As part of regional government, the public health department has collaborated with regional planners to develop supportive policy. Progress has also been made with colleagues from the cities of Kitchener, Cambridge and Waterloo with regards to zoning and by-law issues related to neighbourhood markets.
  • Other Influences. Many of the policy levers related to healthy local food systems lie outside of the control of regional and municipal government, as illustrated by recent appeals to limit food advertising to children (7). This demonstrates the need for wider consideration of healthy local food systems issues at a provincial and federal level.

Cultivating Partnerships

  • Strong Community Partners. The creation and continuation of initiatives has been built on partnerships with community organizations, volunteers and funders. For example, the neighbourhood markets created strong partnerships among community organizations who felt they were contributing to community well-being. Much of this work on local healthy food systems would not be possible if it were not so strongly embraced and supported by others.

Developing System-Wide Networks

  • Creation of the Food Systems Roundtable. The newly established Roundtable will provide a venue for ongoing collective problem-solving and knowledge exchange. For example, a brainstorming session was held at a recent roundtable meeting to seek advice on how to better run and promote the neighbourhood markets and discuss potential links that could improve the efficiency of the pilot project in 2008. In addition, the Roundtable has struck a sub-committee to consider how to best promote institutional food buying and will also consider ways to support the deployment of the Diggable Communities Collaborative.
  • Evaluation of Roundtable Activities and Impact. A professor from the University of Western Ontario will measure the effectiveness of the Roundtable's work with particular emphasis on its networking capabilities and how this influences change in the local food system.

It is important to note that this work facilitating a healthy local food system has been possible due to a dedicated interdisciplinary team within the Health Determinants, Planning and Evaluation Division and the wider support of the public health department and the Region of Waterloo.

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IV Conclusion

This brief article does not permit a full account of all the community-based initiatives related to the creation of a healthy local food system in the Region of Waterloo. It excludes a full description of the work of Foodlink, recent successful efforts by the Perth-Waterloo-Wellington Canadian Organic Growers chapter to convert conventional agricultural land to organic use, as well as innovative student-run produce stands at University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, among many others. Through these and other efforts, community capacity and enthusiasm for the creation of a healthy local food system has grown steadily in Waterloo Region over the past eight years.
 
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V References

1) Metcalf Foundation (2008). Food Connects Us All: Sustainable Local Food in Southern Ontario. George Cedric Metcalf Charitable Foundation, Toronto. Retrieved on April 8, 2008 from http://www.metcalffoundation.com/downloads/Food%20Connects%20Us%20All.pdf

2) Oxford University Press (2007). Oxford Word of the Year: Locavore. Retrieved on April 8, 2008 from http://blog.oup.com/2007/11/locavore/.

3) Metcalf Foundation (2008). Food Connects Us All: Sustainable Local Food in Southern Ontario. George Cedric Metcalf Charitable Foundation, Toronto. Retrieved on April 8, 2008 from http://www.metcalffoundation.com/downloads/Food%20Connects%20Us%20All.pdf

4) Region of Waterloo Public Health (2005). Towards a Healthy Community Food System for Waterloo Region. Region of Waterloo Public Health, Waterloo. Retrieved on April 8, 2008 from
http://chd.region.waterloo.on.ca/web/health.nsf/4f4813c75e78d71385256e5a...$file/Food%20Systems_Report.pdf?openelement

5) Ibid.

6) Statistics Canada (2006). Census of Agriculture, Farm Data and Farm Operator Data, catalogue no. 95-629-XWE.

7) Maloney, Paul. Child food ads under fire. February 27, 2008, The Toronto Star. Retrieved on April 8, 2008 from http://www.thestar.com/News/GTA/article/307280.