Buying Local as a Way to Strengthen Our Regional Food System
Story by Karen Kerk, Coordinator, Thunder Bay + Area Food Strategy, Photos by
It goes without saying that agriculture is a fundamental part of our food system. Not only does it provide most of the calories we need to survive, but it is an important employer and contributes in a large way to the Canadian economy. Thunder Bay is fortunate to have a strong food production and processing sector. The region is home to 150 farms with nearly 40,000 acres of farmland in production, employing well over 6,095 agri-food related jobs, and gross farm receipts topping $30 million. There are a lot of challenges facing our local food production sector, including supply chain disruptions that have increased the cost of inputs while also causing delays in acquiring certain parts, more erratic weather due to climate change, high capital costs to start up and expand, and ongoing labour shortages. Despite these challenges, there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future of our food and farming sectors. There are technologies like tile drainage, which makes farmland easier to work and opens opportunities to grow different crops. Thunder Bay has many early adopters of robotic milking technology (60% of dairy farms use milking robots), which makes farms more efficient while also improving herd health. Several local livestock farmers are venturing into regenerative agricultural practices, such as rotational grazing, which improves forage growth, climate resilience, and environmental outcomes. The cost of land is also much more reasonable in this region compared to further south. Thunder Bay is envied across the province for its robust local food scene. This is due to its farmers markets, many choices of locally grown and processed foods (including pork, lamb, beef, poultry, produce, dairy, and more), and lots of stores, restaurants, and even some institutions sourcing those local products. Thunder Bay's strong local demand has actually boosted many businesses, and led to new start-ups and cross-business collaborations. Yet, most of the food consumed in our region is still not produced here—it is imported from food terminals to the east and west. One effective solution to help stabilize and grow our local food and farming sector is for all consumers (including institutions, restaurants, etc.) to prioritize purchasing more local foods. While some local options are at a higher cost premium, there are lots of readily available local foods including beef, potatoes, and flour (and more items) that are very competitively priced with grocery store options. The Thunder Bay + Area Food Strategy estimates that if everyone in our region committed to spending 10% of their grocery budget on local food, we’d inject an incredible $10 million into our region, with a multiplier effect seeing almost double that amount circulating locally. The City of Thunder Bay’s Pioneer Ridge long-term care facility is one institution prioritizing buying local with an annual spend of $300,000 on regional foods. Imagine the impact if all consumers and institutional buyers got on board? The benefits would ripple beyond to more investments in local infrastructure to continue growing the food and farming sector, an increase in available jobs, and overall achieving a greater level of self-sufficiency when it comes to feeding ourselves. Buying local food isn’t the only solution to our current food system issues. There’s also a need for better food and farming policies and support, as well as advocating for living wages for all, but buying local food is a tangible action that almost everyone can commit to and feel good about. The alternative means continuing to rely on food imports and being at the whim of everincreasing costs. Are you ready to show your love for our local food system and be a part of the solution? For a more detailed overview of Thunder Bay’s food and farming sector, check out the foodsystemreportcard.ca. To find local producers, processors, and retailers of local food, check out tbayineason.ca.