Putting Our Food Charter in the Zone

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of the Transition movement, which advocates for greater local self-sufficiency to build resilience against environmental and economic shocks. Transition is not intended as a policy guide for governments but rather an action guide for ordinary citizens. But I’m going to spend some time looking at how this underlying philosophy could influence planning activities in Innisfil, such as Our Place and other routine civic governance.

Actively supporting Transition would require that we focus on greater self-sufficiency in our basic needs – food; energy; transportation; housing and employment. Let’s start with food. The County of Simcoe formally adopted a Food Charter in 2013 developed by 12 “organizing partners” including Barrie and Orillia working together as the Food Partners Alliance of Simcoe County. The Food Charter itself is an inspiring document full of noble intentions. Here are some quotes:

  • “For farming to remain a vital part of our economy for generations to come, and to ensure regional food security, agricultural lands as a natural resource will need to be protected.”
  • “Made up of the people, places, and processes involved in the production of food, our local food system includes such functions as the growing, harvesting, marketing, processing, packaging, storing and distribution of food …”
  • “Working together to remove the physical and financial barriers to food access, promote healthy eating, and increase access to places where people can buy, grow or otherwise obtain healthy foods, is an important step towards eliminating hunger.”
  • “Enhancing opportunities for local food and agriculture-related businesses or producers (both large and small scale) to produce, store, package, promote, sell, and deliver their products locally and elsewhere is important for a sustainable food system and long-term economic growth.”
  • “The people of Simcoe County should seek new opportunities for increasing food production in both rural and urban areas, advocate for the protection of farmland, and support increased educational opportunities in agriculture (for both large- and small-scale farming)”

How’s that working for us so far? Well, if you visit the Food Partners Alliance web site, the focus seems to be solely on individuals and organizations assuming responsibility for implementing this ‘vision’. Let’s look at the practical aspects of land use planning in Innisfil as if the Food Charter mattered.

Agriculture as a Vital Economic Resource

The Town is pushing ahead with building a waste-water service west of Highway 400 to support development of an “Industrial Zone”. Water hydrants installed along the 5th Line are a portent of what’s to come. I’d just like to know what the net impact will be on our local agricultural economy in terms of lost production, lost skills and lost opportunities.

Enhancing Opportunities for Processing & Packaging Food

Theoretically, you would think this should be a major economic activity in Innisfil as an historically rural and agricultural community. But aside from some farm-gate businesses I can’t think of any local food processors. There are some home-based bakers and caterers. Remarkably, our zoning bylaws exclude food processing from the definition of “manufacturing”:

“Manufacturing, Light shall mean the manufacturing, assembly or processing of component parts to produce finished products suitable for retail trade and does not include food, beverage, tobacco, rubber, leather, textile, wood, printing, concrete …”

If we want to encourage home-based and micro-businesses to grow into sustainable additions to our commercial areas, wouldn’t it make more sense to specifically encourage food processing as “light manufacturing”?

Increase Access to Places Where People Can Buy …

Our zoning bylaw is ridiculously specific in some places and incredibly vague in others. Bakeries are the only food business allowed in “Industrial” zones and the bylaw dwells on the definition of “bakery”. Mention of any other food manufacturing is non-existent! That needs to be corrected. Additionally, I think any small-scale food enterprise that includes a retail outlet should be allowed in “Commercial” zones as well as “Industrial”. The closest we get is “bake shop”, “custom workshop”, and “fruit and vegetable market” allowed in “Commercial” zones. It’s important to strategically revise the zoning bylaws because forcing a business to apply for a zoning variance can cost up to $1,000 and take 60 days to process. We may be unintentionally driving potential businesses away.

Increase Food Production in … Urban Areas …

Our zoning bylaws do not mention or allow specifically for urban agriculture. This is a major failure as modern farming increasingly involves ‘industrial’ agriculture within a controlled, enclosed environment. These food growers locate in urban areas, operate year-round, provide steady employment and are often combined with a retail outlet. As we surrender traditional farmland to development, we should compensate by zoning for Urban Agricultural uses within our “Industrial” zones. We also need to specifically zone for more conventional small-plot Urban Agriculture in residential areas. Urban Agriculture could be defined as “the cultivation of plants, without motorized equipment, for food, fibres, and other similar uses”.

Remove Physical and Financial Barriers to Food Access …

Traditional land use planning thinks of public open space in terms of conventional parks, trails and recreational facilities. We need to consider creating public food spaces as well. These “Food Commons” would be located within walking distance in each neighborhood. It might consist of sufficient space to make a permaculture garden where anyone could help maintain it, and everyone would be welcome to use the edibles it produces. Plantings could include self-sustaining fruit or nut trees, berry shrubs, herbs, squash, root vegetables, and any other items neighbours would like. It would relieve some food budgets, encourage dietary diversity and lessen the demeaning reliance on food banks.

Economic and community development begins with welcoming and enabling, not prohibiting, various desirable activities. Putting the right words on paper doesn’t cost much but can potentially inspire a great deal.