Food Systems Learnings from Thunder Bay

Written by Jessica Nicksy; Photos by Rebecca Wolff

For a small northern city, Thunder Bay’s local food scene is surprisingly active. Locals proudly proclaim that their local market is the third-largest in Ontario (despite the city being the 19th most populous), that their veggies have a higher protein and nutrition content than those of their neighbors down south (due to cooler growing temperatures), and that work tackling complex food issues is on the rise. The city itself has jumped on board the food wagon, not just endorsing the area’s food charter and food strategy documents, but turning themselves into a blueprint for increased institutional procurement of local food.

All this is not to say that Thunder Bay doesn’t have a long way to go. It is estimated that about 1 in 10 people in Thunder Bay are moderately or severely food insecure*, and almost ⅔ of people report not eating at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. The majority of the region’s food is shipped in from distribution centres in Western Canada, with most of the remaining from Toronto and the USA; food produced in Northwestern Ontario is not the norm. There are no abattoirs in the region that will process poultry, a severe limitation for farmers who would otherwise produce more local poultry products. All that said, Thunder Bay seems to be on a fast track to increasing the viability of local food production while improving access to healthy and affordable foods for all residents.

During quest I was excited to explore lessons and initiatives in Thunder Bay that could inform the Parry Sound area’s food strategy. While Thunder Bay has a significantly larger population and is in fact a few hardiness zones cooler than Parry Sound, they have similarities in geography (diverse soils, Canadian shield rock, on the shores of the Great Lakes), history and culture (both were centres of forestry which have subsequently declined), and governance structures (independent single tier municipalities). Some learnings I gleaned in speaking with a people involved in the Thunder Bay food movement:

  1. Celebrate the spectrum
    • Thunder Bay’s Food Strategy doesn’t focus on a single area, but rather 7 interconnected pillars (food access, food production, forest and freshwater foods, etc). Diverse groups are working across all of these areas on different aspects of the food system, and together creating a  movement that is greater than the sum of its parts. The Food Strategy aims to be the convener that helps to connect them around a larger strategy, offering support where it’s most needed.
  2. People make all the difference
    • Over and over I heard that none of the great work that’s been done in Thunder Bay would have been possible without the right people, whether that be a well placed champion or a gung-ho volunteer. Having teams that are able to both strategize and get things done was another teaching
  3. The supply and demand balancing act
    • In Thunder Bay demand for local food had sky-rocketed, with both local people and institutions getting on board to change purchasing patterns. However, this is an area where farming was on the decline for a long time, and much of the farming that was left shipped produce elsewhere. Increasing local demand is not enough without also re-building local distribution networks and getting new farmers into the market. Thunder Bay has seen some movement in this area, with the number of farmers actually increasing between 2001 and 2006, and alternative distribution hubs like the Cloverbelt Local Food Co-op reconnecting farmers with local markets, but there remains significant work to be done.
  4. Funding is key
    • Across the board funding came up as a barrier, from farmers’ access to capital and business know-how, to financial insecurity for non-profits due to short-term grants. Luckily more grants are becoming available for food and community building projects since the official development plan for Northern Ontario included food production as a priority area. Grants for various food projects in Thunder Bay come from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation, the Greenbelt Foundation, FedNor, the Ontario Trillium Fund, OMAFRA, among others.
  5. Build on existing strengths
    • The Thunder Bay Food Strategy has found it most useful to build on what already exists in the community, and supplement those projects with energy and resources strategically to fill in gaps.
  6. Engage at the community level
    • It’s all well and good to have municipal support for a food charter or strategy, but making it a focus and sense of pride within the community is another story. A lot of outreach is required to make this happen.

Every community is different, and lessons never transfer uniformly from one town to the next in the real world, so it’s no sure bet that these ones will apply to Parry Sound. We’ll have to pick and choose what will apply to our town, but at least we’ll be better informed.

* Moderate food insecurity indicates that the quantity/quality of food is inadequate. Severe food insecurity indicates that eating patterns are disrupted and/or meals are regularly skipped



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