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Panel offers tips for a regional food strategy

Planners and officials from Canada and the U.S. offered some advice for Metro Vancouver as it develops a regional food system strategy, calling food an important vehicle for pushing forward municipal goals. They spoke at a panel discussion on local food strategies, part of the Gaining Ground conference taking place in Vancouver this week.

Sibella Kraus, a director in UC Berkeley's Global Metropolitan Studies Center, said municipal and regional governments need to work towards a "new ruralism" where agriculture is embedded in planning frameworks. Agricultural parks -- a combination of a working farm and a municipal park that is often located at the edge of an urban area -- are one example.

Kraus gave several examples: the Sunol Ag Park in San Francisco, 18-acres that is leased from the city's public utilities commission and farmed by local residents, and the Martial Cottle park, nearly 300 acres in San Jose that is being jointly managed by the state and county park departments which will include recreational tails and small-scale farming.

"We're making the assumption that if farmers did sell more to local markets, they could do better," said Kraus. "To make agricultural viable, much more is needed." This includes more capital infrastructure that would allow for "turn-key" farming, said Kraus, such as storage warehouses, irrigation systems, greenhouses and composting facilities.

(Metro Vancouver's strategy specifically addresses the need for processing, warehousing and distribution capacity for local food, stating it would support the development of a BC Food terminal, and would also "investigate options to create a regional fund for food system infrastructure improvements." It also proposes creating a land use inventory of parks and other public land that could be used for agriculture.)

Judy Shiprack, commissioner for Multomah County in Oregon (which encompasses the Portland area) pointed out that local governments have a big role to play in local food procurement. Last year, Oregon passed House Bill 2763, which enabled local governments to give preference to in-state agricultural products when awarding contracts.

(Metro's plan doesn't address government procurement policies specifically, but does propose the development of school programs aimed at healthy, local produce.)

Finally, Toronto's medical officer of health, Dr. David McKeown, talked about how that city's sustainable food system agenda has been pushed forward by its public health board. Last spring Toronto Public Health released Cultivating Food Connections: Toward a Healthy and Sustainable Food System. It includes 23 initiatives to create a "culture of food systems thinking". For example, Toronto Public Health is piloting a mobile produce stand service in neighbourhoods underserved by markets or grocery stores. It is also developing soil contaminant testing protocol for turning vacant lots into community gardens.

"It's amazing when you think about it, how many levers there are for local governments to influence the food system," said McKeown.

Metro Vancouver's draft regional food system strategy can be viewed here.

Colleen Kimmett reports for The Tyee.

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