The politics of fresh

Ottawa City , Dec. 2004/Jan. 2005

A small band of zealots and one lone bureaucrat are trying to secure the region’s locally grown produce for the community. It hasn’t been easy.

politics of fresh

The décor in Bob Thomson’s downtown office gives off a certain administrative je ne sais quoi .   No pictures are on the walls and only a small plate of peanuts adorns his desk. The sparse surroundings are hardly inspiring for the person responsible for thinking about the city’s food supply. As the only paid member of Ottawa’s Food Security Council, Thomson, until recently, was charged with convincing people that having access to locally grown fresh produce is now seen as part of any enlightened city’s “food security”, as a means of making sure that local communities can feed themselves. When I inquire what the council has been up to lately, Thomson pulls down a sheet of paper off the bulletin board– a map of eastern Ontario dotted with farms and farmer’s markets. He has been working on this map for over a year.   

Charting area farms as part of the council’s buy-local campaign is more challenging than it seems. Some farmers don’t want to be listed on Thomson’s map; vigilant food security council members want farmers with certain kinds of unregulated products left off. One young farmer, Hilary Chop, would go so far as to suggest putting Ottawa’s Byward Market on the sidelines. According to Chop, the city’s famous outdoor market is not much different than an open-air Loblaws, a clearing-house for imported produce. “Including places that are buying and reselling food -to me it just defeats the purpose,” she says.  

For Chop, home is where the vegetables are; she sells her hand-harvested tomatoes, potatoes, and fresh beets to a group of local residents and business owners she knows by name. She runs a CSA or Community Supported Agriculture, an arrangement that allows individuals to buy shares in a farm, connect to the people who grow their food, and provide farmers with a predictable income. From the beginning of the growing season until winter settles in, Chop feeds her members with the weekly dividends: summer squash, swiss chard, carrots and rutabagas.

On paper, it would seem that all of the ingredients are in place for Ottawa, an amalgamated city now comprised of more than 80 per cent rural areas, to join the ranks of Berkeley CA, Hartford Conn., and even Toronto as cities that champion access to locally-produced food. No one disputes the fact that locally grown food helps to build healthy, self-sustaining communities. No one disputes the claims that the closer the distance from harvest to plate, the more nutritious and delicious produce will be. So why can’t the different voices in Canada’s capital city get together to put food security on the map? If you ask Bob Thomson, he’ll tell you to walk a mile in his shoes, and watch food security meet food politics.  

When we hear the term “food security”, the rash of recent panics comes to mind: tainted meat scandals, genetically-modified “frankenfoods” and the Walkerton water crisis pop to mind.   Protecting the integrity of the food supply from a chemical or biological attack now falls under the purview of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the agency created in the aftermath of September 11th. In Canada, food security issues arose not out of fear of terrorism but as part of the country’s war on poverty that was underway well before the attacks.   In 1996 Canada participated in the World Food Summit, a U.N. sponsored initiative to reduce the number of hungry and undernourished on the planet by 2015.   The summit determined that “food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.  


Most cities ignore issues of food security choosing to focus on buses and bike paths rather than far-reaching issues like community nutrition. For Jean-Charles LaVallee, a food security scholar at Carleton University and former consultant to Health Canada and the UN, such ignorance has wide-reaching implications. His approach is holistic, with food touching every aspect of people’s lives: “The benefits of a healthier population will impact not only on the job, but your personal life as well.   If you’re healthier, you’re more productive, you work better, you’re less sick.”  

That’s a big concept for cities to chew on, which is why food security councils are frequently misunderstood. At its most basic level, the role of the councils is to broaden the discussion of food security to include everyone who has had a hand in what we eat–from farmers and bureaucrats to chefs and retailers. However, critics charge that these councils represent another level of bureaucracy devoted to pie-in-the-sky propositions. Hearing of the establishment of Ottawa’s food security council last year, Citizen columnist Randall Denley characterized the project as “laughable twaddle” and “lame-brained”.   He further maintained that the city had no business wasting money ($20,000 annually) and staff time (one part-time co-ordinator) dealing what he called “the bottomless pit situation like so-called hunger”.

Denley was right about one thing: Ottawa-area farmers produce more food than the amount being consumed in Ottawa.   In that sense, there is no food shortage.   Ironically, Denley also inadvertently supported a key argument for the existence of a food security council: Ottawa’s population isn’t accessing much of its locally produced food. One study identified $38 million of untapped local markets for local food products in the Ottawa area.  

When I asked Thomson how Ottawa measures up in terms of food security, he presents a study that was initiated in 2001 by a handful of local nutritionists. The report delivers a snapshot of local food production, food retailers and suppliers in the new city of Ottawa. The diagnosis was bleak: a large proportion of the city’s residents were at risk for food insecurity.

Within weeks of becoming the council’s co-ordinator Thomson realized his first hurdle was not going to be bringing together the stakeholders or launching a buy-local campaign, but convincing people to think about where their food comes from – and that would prove to be the one thing that the City of Ottawa isn’t prepared to do. A trip downtown to the city’s largest public market helps explain why.


I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz the moment before she peers behind the curtain. Philip Powell, the City of Ottawa’s markets manager is leading me along the street behind the historic produce stalls. He has promised to share his secrets for identifying the produce that is truly local. “Some stuff you just know isn’t being grown in this region,” Powell says pointing out the stacks of mass-market produce boxes from heads of lettuce and bananas. “But see that box of broccoli?” he asks in a hushed voice, “Broccoli that’s shipped in comes on ice. If it wasn’t local there’d be water running out the back into the gutter.” Moving on to the next stall Powell points to a re-useable crate “Look, these tomatoes still have dirt on them,” he says, “That tells you they are home-grown.”

I ask Powell how much of the fruit and vegetables sold at the Byward Market today meet the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s definition of local, that is to say, grown within 50 km of where it is sold. “No one really knows,” says Powell, “We used to have staff that did farm inspections and all of that, but since 1995 we have no idea.”

Many Ottawans will remember the bitter battle that broke out nine years ago between the city and the vendors over a bylaw that required vendors to sell only local produce when it was in season. “That’s when our role as a municipality became a liability,” he explains. “We were seen as the potato police and cucumber cops rather than making an effort to ensure that the products here were in fact truly locally produced.” A group of vendors who were threatened by the regulation took the city to court and the bylaw was thrown out in its entirety. Says Powell, “We’ve sort of been reeling ever since.”

That means, for much of the last decade, people who shop at one of the city’s most enduring symbols of farm-fresh produce have had no real way of knowing whether or not they’re supporting a farm in Quebec or California. Which might help explain why the Food Security Council’s buy-local map is still under construction. It is one thing to raise consumer awareness about the value of buying local, but quite another to wade into the government’s messy relationship with local farmers and food purveyors. So when Thomson comes along with a plan to help increase the demand for locally-produced food in the city, he discovers that the city itself is unable to truly support it.

For now, it is neither the government, nor the food security council that is making the biggest impact on Ottawa’s food security. It is the people of Ottawa, hungry for local produce and contact with the people who grow it, who are unwittingly taking food security matters into their own hands. Whether planting an heirloom variety of lettuce as part of a 70-square-foot plot in a community garden (the solution for more than 400 people without space to garden in downtown Ottawa) or delivering fresh produce boxes to families who would otherwise rely on canned vegetables from a food bank (via a program called the Good Food Box), the people of Ottawa seem to be fighting quiet food revolutions of their own.

The organics movement is behind another group of Ottawans who are exploring alternatives to conventional food systems. Don Wallace, a computer programmer for Library and Archives Canada began adhering to an organic diet almost 20 years ago because of terrible food allergies. After scoping out the city’s minimal offerings, he decided to make personal arrangements with organic farmers in the area. The result is a small, informal food-buying co-op. Every two weeks, Wallace receives a large delivery of seasonal organic produce that he divides up among a dozen or so friends and neighbours. The best part is, the food is delivered by the same person who grows it, says Wallace. “He’s a real odd bird, but a damn good farmer.” Knowing the grower is just one of the advantages. Wallace takes great pleasure in eating food that is available exclusively in season, even if that means winters without salads and corn for just a few weeks a year. “It’s a real joy,” he says. “When those first green onions arrive in the spring, my eyes mist over because it’s like – here we go, we’re in food season now.”  

A few years ago, Wallace discovered a small organics market had sprouted up behind a church on Island Park Drive. The market has since moved to an elementary school behind the Canadian Tire on Bank St. where he continues to buy organic chicken and pork. Robert Rivard, one of the market’s produce vendors says most of his customers are regulars, and he knows them by name. Every Saturday for the last 12 years, Rivard has been filling his pickup truck with organic vegetables from his farm in Notre-dame la Paix, Quebec to bring into Ottawa. At a glance it’s apparent that Rivard’s snow peas, potatoes and broccoli differ from the ones that are found in the supermarket. “Look at my carrots,” he says fanning them out like fingers, “Not a single one looks like the other – just like human beings.”   He says it’s a shame that the food industry has created the expectation that vegetables must be uniform in shape, size and colour and wonders aloud, “Is it because it makes people feel more secure?”


Back in Bob Thomson’s office the members of the Ottawa’s Food Security Council are meeting for their monthly roundup on the buy-local campaign. As the discussion gets underway, Thomson brings up a recent news story about a group of farmers in Lanark County who have staged protests against some food safety policies. They argue that the government’s inspection process on food items like meat and eggs is interfering with the farmer’s ability to sell directly to consumers. To protest, farmers have been selling their “illegal” food to anyone willing to buy it. “It’s a really, really, thorny problem”, says Thomson.

The members of the council are divided on what to do. Some think the council should jump into the fray by organizing public discussions on issues that have an impact on food security.   Others, like Thomson, believe the council can’t afford to get involved. The debate gets to the heart of the real challenge that lies ahead as the council moves into its second year: defining its role.

There is no doubt that the first year of such an ambitious project will be fraught with growing pains, but without achieving solid agreement on whether the council sees itself as a community educator, a mediator between rural and urban communities, an advocacy group for sustainable agriculture or a non-partisan facilitator, one thing is becoming clear: not much is getting accomplished. The Council’s first growing season has come and gone. The only farmer who has ever agreed to sit on the council, Hilary Chop, has resigned. And the un-finished draft of the buy-local map is still posted on Thomson’s bulletin board.

Thomson is the first to admit that consumers are only half of a buy-local campaign; the farming community has to be on-board. “When it comes to a dialogue with farmers we haven’t gotten very far,” he says. “Most rural people see us as another part of the great urban conglomerate that exploits them.”

Food security seems to be as much about consumers who are insecure about the food they eat, as the farmers who are insecure about the people who eat the food they produce. Getting everyone around the same table seems to be a challenge for the Food Security Council. Perhaps a visit to one of the city’s CSAs, organics markets or food co-ops could show them how it’s done.

As this article was going to press, OCM discovered Bob Thomson had left his role as co-ordinator to take a job in Europe. Council member Moe Garahan stepped into the role for four months at which time funding decisions will determine the fate of the Ottawa Food Security Council.