On an average visit to the grocery store, how often do you stop to see if your eggs or sausages are locally produced? And, despite living in a maple syrup hotspot, how often do you opt to coat your breakfast waffles with some remainder-bin Aunt Jemima? Accessibility and awareness are key to supporting the local food industry, and now the Waterloo Region Food System Roundtable’s newly-launched Food Charter hopes to spread awareness of the benefits of keeping the dinner table local.
The Food Charter, which the Roundtable has promoted for the past year, was approved by the Waterloo Region’s community services committee on April 9 and by the Waterloo Regional council on Wednesday. It was launched to the public on Monday night during a presentation at Woolwich Healthy Communities’ annual “A Taste of Woolwich” event in Breslau.
More a declaration of principles than a legal document, the food charter promotes “fair, environmentally sustainable, livable, and economically profitable rural and urban communities,” in which members of the community have easy access to food produced within the Waterloo Region. To that end, the charter supports five main principles: connecting people to the local food system; supporting community economic development; increasing access to healthy food; promoting ecological health; and integrating food policies at all levels of government.
“This is just the beginning,” said Food Systems Roundtable member Ellen Desjardins at the presentation. “This means we have now a plan to follow.”
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With these principles, the charter seeks to encourage legislation that would increase awareness of the benefits and availability of local food products; preserve farmland from urbanization; and develop clean energy and reduce waste.
“It’s pretty easy to support something when you look at the preamble … ‘healthy,’ ‘just,’ ‘sustainable,’ ‘accessible,’ ‘culturally acceptable,’ ‘safe,’ ‘nutritious,’” said Waterloo Region Coun. Sean Strickland, who chairs the community services committee that supported the charter.“It’s great to have this kind of food charter that identifies specifically how important it is for people to get connected to their food, and recognize and understand where their food comes from,” he continued. “It’s talking about collaboration within all of the different food systems.”
While the Food Charter has officially been in the works for one year, Strickland added that “there have been discussions around the community a lot longer.” The Food System Roundtable drew attention to their cause with social media, soliciting endorsements from local citizens, both inside and outside of the food industry. They also received endorsements from more than 20 local organizations, including Foodlink, Kitchener Downtown Community Health Centre, the Grand River Environmental Network, and Bailey’s Local Foods.
“We needed this to be everyone’s food charter,” explained Desjardins.
While not all food products have traditionally been the Waterloo Region’s forte, the charter seeks to discourage importation when supply already meets demand. “I’m not sure we really want to stop imports. I think we want to discourage imports when we ourselves are growing it,” said Desjardins. “When it’s June and we have strawberries, we don’t want to see strawberries from Mexico or California.”
Anna Contini, whose St. Jacobs-based Foodlink Waterloo Region is one of the area’s most active promoters of local food awareness, sees the charter as a step in the right direction.
“I think the more that’s out there, the better,” said Contini in an interview. “The very fact of establishing a charter raises awareness of the issue, and that’s a good thing.”
She continued, “This touches on a whole range of issues around local food – everything from the accessibility, the ecological health, and supporting economic development. It’s all in line with what we’ve been doing in terms of connecting people to local food and local food producers.”
However, despite the official endorsements, there are no guarantees that regional council and food distributors will necessarily follow the proposals. The charter simply encourages policies to promote local food accessibility – it doesn’t propose them. The real test will be seeing if the Waterloo Region can turn the charter into something more than just good intentions.
“It’s really just a statement of values,” said roundtable member Michelle Metzger at Monday night’s presentation. “It doesn’t really say how we’re going to do that, and that’s coming.
“This is really just a first step to say, ‘These are our values,’ and from that, it’s up to us as a community to come up with the creative solutions to do this.”