If you are what you eat, than it’s fair to say many Canadians don’t know all that much about themselves. Over the last century, there has been a decline in family farms and the number of farmers that make up the population. But as the youth filter out of rural areas into the cities, there’s a danger of country’s still prominent agriculture practice becoming increasingly obscure to the millions of Canadians who depend on it.
To raise awareness for Ontario’s own thriving farm-industry, the provincial government is partnering with the educational not-for-profit AgScape to turn that trend around. Over the next three years, Ontario has committed $1.2-million to AgScape’s programming, which aims to improve school-aged children’s local food literacy.
“Our number-one flagship program is the teacher-ambassador program. With that program, we’re focusing on Grades 7 to 12,” explains Catherine Reining, manager of the ambassador program at AgScape.
The program hires ambassadors to visit classrooms across the province and provide lessons on all things food. The service is entirely free, with interested teachers simply having to reach out to the company.
“More and more there’s becoming a disconnect between the food we eat on our plate, where our food actually came from and where it was grown,” said Reining, “especially as we see more people living in urban centres, away from rural communities, away from where the actual food is being grown.”
The program offers lessons on topics such as local and global food systems, food security, the value of our fresh water supplies and the types careers that are available in agriculture sector.
The last is especially poignant because, for all the talk of people’s difficulties in finding gainful employment out of college, the agriculture sector is comparatively flush with jobs and short on applicants.
“One in eight jobs in Canada is in the agri-food sector, and we need the people to work in those jobs. So the more students are understanding where their food comes from and the options locally, the better informed they are and the more informed decisions that they can make.”
According to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), the sector employs more than 760,000 Ontarians, while contributing an estimated $34 billion to the economy.
Audrie Bouwmeester, chair of AgScape board, points out that working in agriculture is not exclusively restricted to just farming.
“You could be a lawyer and work in agriculture. You can become a teacher and work in agriculture. You become a lot of things and still be working in the agricultural industry. We want (students) just to be able to view it as an option,” she said.
The AgScape program is just one of the ways the provincial government is trying to promote and support its local food-producers in the ever more globalized food market. Last year, the province contributed approximately $35 million to various projects like the Greenbelt Fund, Foodland Ontario and the Local Food Fund, according to the 2015/16 Ontario Local Food Report.