Eat Local All Year Long: Sault and Area Food Summit

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The Rural Agri-Innovation Network (RAIN) is hosting the first Sault and Area Food Summit on November 21st and 22nd. Over the past ten years or so the concept of buying local and supporting the area’s farmers and growers has caught on. The success of the Algoma Farmers Market and Mill Market and some options to obtain local products in grocery stores are evidence enough.

The event will bring together various organizations, farmers and every day regular folks who want to “create action and change in the local food system”. The two day event kicks off Friday night and you don’t have to cook! Friday’s dinner is homegrown- roast beef, butternut squash, roasted root vegetables, gnocchi and pumpkin pie tarts. Saturday features several guest speakers from across Northern Ontario who will speak about beekeeping, forest and wild foods, food strategies and innovative community strategies.

Food Summit coordinators hope that the event is the next progression to developing an area wide food strategy.

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David Thompson, Rain Research Project Coordinator, has put in several years speaking with local farmers and has gained a rich understanding of the challenges and opportunities presented to growers.

“Farmers wanted help with developing local markets for food. Food is pretty expensive to ship out of the community and a lot of farmers have been doing that for a long time. But now there is a growing interest in the local market be it a farmer’s market, local restaurants using local food or retailers carrying local food in their stores.”

Erin Heeney, RAIN Local Food Research Assistant, facilitated a number of focus groups and handled survey’s to identify where people were buying food and to measure the local consumer’s interest to buy local food. “Certainly there is a lot of interest but knowledge about buying local was missing. There is an educational piece that is going to be pretty important in developing a local food strategy. For example, people don’t realize that you can’t buy a big turkey in the middle of the summer.”

Other hurdles identified through Erin’s work were the perception that local food is more expensive and seasonal challenges associated with a Northern Climate.

Talking about eating local in November may seem a bit daring- especially when you catch a glimpse of the snow laden treetops from your window. But if the big town 10 hours north of the Sault can develop a city wide food strategy than the Algoma District can too!

Reaching back almost 20 years, in 1995 the Thunder Bay Health Unit was concerned about the challenges many faced accessing food and eating healthy. Over the years the discussions for solutions began to evolve and the stakeholder group began to expand. The conversation that started out as a discussion about food access and healthy eating broadened to address a more comprehensive study.

Kendal Donahue, Food Strategy Coordinator for Thunder Bay and Area, is scheduled to share her community’s journey towards sustainable food strategies. Thunder Bay’s early challenges are not unlike the issues that the Algoma District will need to develop solutions for.

Thunder Bay’s support for local food and farmers is approaching a point where the demand will exceed the supply. There are two components to address this: grow more and store more.

“Thunder Bay is not anywhere near the capacity of our growing potential,” Kendal commented. “In the 1960’s we grew on 162 thousand acres and today we’re growing on less than half of that- 60, 000 acres. We can also get a lot better at storing and processing food. There is some discussion about creating a tomato canning facility here and there’s other interventions like freezing food that would make it available all year.”

Among the pioneers leading the food culture change are twelve daycares in Thunder Bay. “They made small changes over the years and now they use local food all year long. Their menus are amazing,” laughs Erin. “These little kids are eating quinoa and barley! And it’s all cooked from scratch.”

As part of his research, David has explored technologies that would enable farmers to lengthen their growing seasons- earlier starts in the spring and extended growing into the fall. “There are different grants that farmers can tap into through the Ontario Northern Heritage Fund to help offset the costs associated with these technologies. Tile drainage for farmer’s field are pretty innovative and there are greenhouse growers that have started growing crops under high tunnels. And of course we need to look at storage of crops. Root cellars can keep cabbages, potatoes and root vegetables for a really long time and extend a farmers season well into the winter months.”

The Sault and Area Food Summit is timely.

“Out of our research and all of the work that has been done we recognized that there were a lot of people that were trying to make the food system better. We wanted to connect them and that gets us to where we are with the Food Summit,” David shared. “We’re really hoping that people will stay connected with us so that we can move forward to create a food strategy for the Sault that would get the endorsement of the Council and other people who want to make the food system better.”

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Proceeds raised from the Local Harvest Dinner on Friday night are in support of the Soup Kitchen’s Good Food Box.

Friday Nov 21st Local Harvest Dinner Fundraiser – Tickets $30.00 are available exclusively at Scotiabank branches – 293 Bay St. (Station Mall) and 294 Northern Ave. East (Metro Plaza) in Sault Ste. Marie

Saturday Nov 22nd Community Session – Tickets $5.00 are available at the door. RSVP to secure a seat by contacting Erin Heeney, RAIN Local Food Researcher at: eheeney@ssmic.com or 942-7927 x3065

For more information click here.

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