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The Higher ED Blog: Are local food opportunities really on the economic developer’s agenda?

Scott Ross / November 4, 2014

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The Higher ED Blog: Are local food opportunities really on the economic developer’s agenda?

Wandering through your local grocery store, it’s impossible to ignore the rising interest in local food. Due to recent food safety crises and increasing awareness of the relationship between food and health, people want to know exactly what is in their food, where it came from and how it was produced. This demand for local food presents a variety of opportunities for regions and municipalities, which are yet to be fully understood.

Here are just a few examples. Young professionals are increasingly recognized as a demographic with interest in local and craft-based food production, positioning local food as an asset for talent attraction. It is also an opportunity to foster social capital through more personal food-based relationships. In terms of regional business retention and expansion, local food businesses are grounded in their physical location and the value of their business is often founded upon relationships of trust within their community and as such pose little risk they will uproot. As a result, investments in the expansion and continued success of these businesses are more likely to remain within the region.  Research by Swenson (2009) also suggests that a disproportionate amount of local farms’ input expenditures take place within nearby communities.  Value-added production is also central to the sector, presenting job creation potential in managing, producing, processing and marketing food. The USDA notes that locally marketed food produces more than 4 times the number of farm operator jobs per dollar of farm revenue, compared to conventionally marketed farming.

All of these opportunities are there for the taking, so what are local governments doing to leverage the opportunities presented by local food and other specialty food markets?  This is a question I tried to answer during my time at the University of Waterloo, where  I worked with a team of students and faculty on a research project funded by the Economic Developers Council of Ontario (EDCO).  This project explored how regions can foster economic development within and between emerging sectors, focusing on the local food, green energy and creative sectors in Waterloo region. My primary contribution to the final report, entitled Taking Regional Action, explored collaboration in the region’s local food sector. This set the foundation for my further research on the collaborative networks that governed local food activity in Waterloo Region. Through over 80 interviews and extensive document analysis and policy review, I came to understand the key stakeholders, their relationships with one another, and how these related to the challenges and opportunities facing local food sector development in the Region.

What I found was a highly innovative and growing sector of the local economy, with an engaged, diverse, and collaborative base of businesses and civil society, founded and supported by forward thinking work led by Waterloo Region Public Health.  In the early 2000s, the department recognized that a robust local food sector provided a variety of public health benefits and conducted extensive research on how to support its development. As a result, Public Health was instrumental in supporting the founding of two significant local food organizations: Foodlink Waterloo Region and the Waterloo Region Food System Roundtable. These organizations connected urban and rural stakeholders and provided continued vision and policy support for the sector, respectively. They held significant roles in the continued growth of the sector. However, there was limited interaction between these two local food organizations and formal economic development structures and local economic development officials (EDOs).

My research revealed that while the EDOs in the rural parts of the region were very aware of the opportunities presented by local food and were actively exploring ways to support its development, this wasn’t true across the region, particularly in the urban areas.  At the time, the only regional scale collaborative economic development organization, Canada’s Technology Triangle, held a mandate for foreign direct investment.  As a result, despite their express intention to promote regional collaboration in economic development, there was no formal regional forum where officials could address the challenges and opportunities presented by the local food sector, especially those that require involvement by both the region’s rural and urban municipalities. Thus, the actions taken by the Region’s rural communities were isolated and not being leveraged within the Region’s broader economic development strategies. A lack of collaboration was leading to missed opportunities. Fortunately for Waterloo, the Region is currently working toward a collaborative regional economic development organization so perhaps the missed opportunities will be captured in the future.

Local food can be the basis for positive economic development outcomes–like talent attraction, fostering of social capital, BR&E, and job creation–but there needs to be regional collaboration to make them happen.  A regional economic development forum, including rural and urban areas, is the best way to leverage the leadership, knowledge, and assets that already exist among that region’s agri-food businesses, civil society, and other government departments. A regional forum is also better equipped to manage the public health and planning outcomes of local food strategies and therefore identify what investments can best contribute to quality of life across these domains. It’s time economic developers recognize that local food businesses are on the forefront of an innovative sector with considerable growth opportunities, and economic developers need to treat it as such.

About the Author

Scott Ross is a recent graduate of the University of Waterloo’s Master’s Program in Local Economic Development. His Major Research Paper is titled: Regional Economic Development and Alternative Food Network Governance: A Waterloo Region Case Study. While in the program, he studied a broad range of urban and rural economic development issues, with a focus on the agri-food industry. Scott is Director of Business Risk Management and Farm Policy for the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. He remains actively involved in local food and regional economic development activities as a board member of Just Food Ottawa, a grassroots non-profit organization focused on creating a vibrant, just and sustainable food system in the Ottawa region.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only masters program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

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