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In the fall of 2018, the Windsor-Essex Food Policy Council and the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, with support from the WindsorEssex Community Foundation, initiated this Comprehensive Food System Assessment for Windsor and Essex County. This project represents the culmination of many years of work and focus by a wide variety of individuals passionate about food in Windsor and Essex County. The purpose of the assessment was to build a foundation for sustained, ongoing, food system work to come over the next many years in this region. As a comprehensive assessment, it considered all aspects of the food system contained in the current food system framework – production, processing, distribution, access, consumption, and waste management. The time is right for food system work with recent Federal and Provincial food policy initiatives, as well as poverty reduction initiatives supporting food security.

With a focus on the entire Windsor and Essex County region and beginning in September of 2018, an environmental scan, local research and broad stakeholder engagement were undertaken to inform this assessment. A total of 681 community connections were made through face to face community conversations, a community survey and stakeholder engagement sessions across Windsor and Essex County. Grounded in a knowledge of the local community, including both strengths and vulnerabilities, the assessment delved into assets, strengths, challenges, and opportunities in the local food system. The following provides a brief summary of findings across the various food system areas.

Production

Windsor and Essex County have a strong presence in the agricultural sector, driven in part by natural assets such as land and climate. Food production, both traditional and greenhouse, and associated industries contribute significantly to the local economy both in terms of contributions to gross domestic product and employment. Oilseed and grain farming are most common, along with vegetable and fruit production. Local greenhouse activity contributes significantly to the provincial total, producing vegetables and fruit year round and, more recently alternative crops such as cannabis. Research and innovation at the local level is contributing to growth in this area.

Challenges are also noted. Climate change, while expected to bring opportunities, will also bring challenges that need to be considered proactively. The potential loss of agricultural land is a concern for many, as is the rising price of farmland and ownership by non-residents and non-farmers. Regulations offer protection to consumers, but can pose issues for competitiveness at all levels. Smaller scale farmers have additional struggles such as aging and start up costs (costs for new farmers is often prohibitive). While production overall is profitable, many farmers report having to take non-farm work to make ends meet.

Overall, community members are generally in favour of measures that support local farmers, particularly small scale food farmers, and believe that protecting agricultural land is necessary. Residents are also highly supportive of local food and food production, but express concern about pesticides and other potential hazards they believe are part of the food production process. Community members claimed to not have strong knowledge in the area of production however, and believe that education is needed for children and adults.

Processing and Distribution

Food processing and distribution also play a significant role the local economy, with food and beverage being the region’s second largest manufacturing sector, generating over $2 billion in revenue annually. Windsor and Essex County benefit from a strong food production base, a variety of small and large processors, and a local geography that is proximal to the United States and main transportation routes. While heavy regulation of food processing plants presents challenges to competitiveness, technology and local research and innovation across manufacturing domains means Windsor and Essex County are well positioned to grow in food processing and distribution sectors. Community members felt local processing is an asset that should be encouraged.

A central challenge is the desire to keep more locally produced products in Windsor and Essex County. Many community members saw this as important. As with the rest of the province, this area exports a great deal of its local food products and imports far more. Given the large, centralized food distribution supply chains that predominate, a regional food system that directly connects consumers with local products is harder to realize. The need for, and interest in, smaller, regional food distribution systems was clear and a case can be made for economic growth through increased local production of traditionally imported foods. While residents that were surveyed believe food grown or produced here should be available here, there was some appreciation that the issue is more complicated.

Access and Consumption

Windsor and Essex County have the largest number of assets in this area of the food system. For those with the means, restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores, supermarkets, specialty food markets, and other types of establishments offer food access throughout Windsor and Essex County. Farmers’ markets, farm stands, and farm gate sales offer additional opportunities to purchase fresh, local products in season. Urban agriculture is also going on locally, in backyards, in community gardens, and through community-supported agriculture. For many, access to food was not experienced as an issue, although the ability to get fresh local food was more of a concern for some.

Despite many residents reporting having access to food, others gave voice to challenges associated with food access stemming from low income and associated factors. Poverty continues to be an issue in Windsor and Essex County, deeply entrenched in some areas, and food insecurity is present for as many as 1 in 10 households and 1 in 4 low-income households in Windsor and Essex County. Community food programmes are available and offer some assistance but on their own are unable to address underlying causes of food insecurity. Food deserts also exist in Windsor and Essex County, typically in locations where poverty is more prevalent.

The limited information that is available about dietary habits suggests that residents of Windsor and Essex County continue to under-consume vegetables and fruit and spend more on junk food than fresh food. Programmes to address food insecurity, as well as those teaching healthy eating and food skills were viewed as important by many community members.

Waste Management

The Waste-Free Ontario Act and Ontario’s Food and Organic Waste Framework, highlight the expectation of complete diversion of organic waste from landfill by 2022. This is paving the way for a local municipal composting programme if all stays on track at the provincial level. Currently, a municipal composting programme is lacking in Windsor and Essex County but community members are interested. As much as 50% of local household waste is organic.

In addition to supporting municipal composting and making efforts to reduce food waste at home, community engagement efforts suggest that residents feel very strongly about the importance of food diversion or rescue programmes. Such programmes take healthy but less marketable food generated through industry, grocery stores, restaurants, and other food sources, and move it out of the waste stream to provide healthy and safe food to those who need it. Local programmes include Gleaners and Plentiful Harvest, but community members believe there is more that can be done.

Recommendations

The local food system in Windsor and Essex County has many strengths but lacks an integrated focus. The Windsor-Essex Food Policy Council itself is an excellent start, as is the commitment to a comprehensive assessment such as this. Recommendations represent the integration of themes gleaned from relevant legislation, local data and reports, community input, and stakeholder knowledge. They also attempt to maximize the existing local food system assets, build on what has gone before, and move toward a more integrated approach to food system planning.

The largest number of recommendations pertain to Access and Consumption and Production, in line with the interests voiced by the community. These can be read in full in the Recommendations portion of the report. The system-wide recommendations listed below emphasize the cross-sectoral work that spans the food system. These are summarized as follows:

Cross-Sectoral Work

  • The importance of working together across the food system and across sectors is vital. Collaborations should include engagement with municipal partners and policy makers, as well partners in education, labour, research and innovation, and industrial and institutional settings.

Financial Supports

  • Financial assets were some of the least common assets identified across the food system. Exploring innovative strategies to generate or leverage financial supports across the food system would be helpful. For example, this might include corporate social responsibility initiatives to raise dollars via shareholder activism.

Promotion

  • Promotion efforts should focus on food as common to all people and capitalize on opportunities to promote and educate across multiple food system areas at once. Working with the media to market successes is a useful way to gain momentum and potential buy-in for cross-sectoral partnerships, while also addressing potential apathy.

Research and Innovation

  • Windsor and Essex County have a number of potential partners to support research and innovation. Partnering for small pilot projects is an excellent way to start to extend the reach of the Windsor-Essex Food Policy Council while also providing opportunities for a more complex food system focus.

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