Customize local food opportunities for farmers

Everyone wants in on the local food craze. Some believe formalizing its place in society through local food legislation or institutionalizing it would open doors for farmers who now feel left out.

That thought prompted a University of Guelph research team to look into local food for hospitals and long-term care facilities.

On the surface, it made sense. Health-wise, local food is supposed to be more nutritious because it hasn’t logged as many miles as its well-travelled counterpart. And an undeniable relationship exists between nutrition and health.

So if local food is more nutritious, why not serve it in hospitals and long-term health care facilities?

And if local food legislation existed, chances are those institutions could count on a steadier supply than anything market forces might generate independently.

But, the Guelph researchers say, hold your horses.

First, everyone needs to at least somewhat agree on a definition of local food, or the whole effort is chaotic. People have an emotional understanding of local food, but experts are still wringing their hands over a practical definition.

Now, the definition matters little if you have only a casual relationship with local food. But if you’re a hospital trying to fill a government-mandated quota and you need suppliers to show documentation, the definition matters a lot.

The researchers say a compromise is possible, though. They’re advocating what they call a customized approach, where institutions can work out local food options with farmers and suppliers. In their study “Report on Food Provision in Ontario Hospitals and Long-Term Care Services: The Challenges and Opportunities of Incorporating Local Food,” they reflect one of the core reasons Ontario farming is unique – that is, the variety of commodities grown there.

“Individual facilities can successfully incorporate local food into their menus because there are so many different ways to do so,” says lead researcher Paula Padanyi. “It’s a matter of finding the best way(s) for each…but customization is really just an extension of what is done now. Facilities do what their managers think is appropriate based on their priorities, annual strategies, financial resources and human resources.” 

Health-care spending is skyrocketing. Would local food somehow help reduce hospital stays because people feel better and more able to leave? If so, maybe institutions will consider local food. If not, it’s back to the farmer’s market.                                   


Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy


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