Monday, September 4, 2017

Championing Local Food Identities and Building an Authentic Taste of Ontario.


Championing Slow Food in London, ON in 2003

Feast ON is a criteria-based certification program designed to promote, market, and protect the authenticity of foodservice operators whose specific attributes qualify their commitment to local food. It is a program designed to help you experience restaurants of all sizes and shapes that champion Ontario food and beverages and share principles that are in sync with  your identity. The program uses both verification and enforcement mechanisms to maintain its integrity.

Since launching the Feast On™ program in June 2014 the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance (OCTA) has continued growing, evolving, and improving the program, including the designation system and consumer brand awareness. OCTA is a not for profit devoted to connecting tastemakers, sharing their stories and developing authentic food tourism.

The purpose of certification is to safeguard the character and reputation of authentic foods, promote rural and agricultural activity, help producers obtain the best price for their regional products, and eliminate representation to consumers by imitators and counterfeit products. Certification is an assurance that products possess certain qualities, are made according to traditional methods, or possess particular characteristics, due to terroir or geographical origin. Think, European Union-adopted systems of geographical indications and traditional specialties, and our existing VQA structure of classification for wine.

Misrepresenting and counterfeiting products and ingredients has been pervasive long before expressions like “locally-sourced,” “farm fresh,” “artisanal,” “organic,” “small-batch” and “heirloom” conferred unwarranted credibility on menus  in restaurants and products in farmers’ markets that are less than forthright about their food sourcing and purchasing practices.  
There is also the issue and the duplicity of calling restaurants and other culinary business farm-to-table when procuring out-of-province products or ingredients.  One of more disingenuous and insincere claims is the business that states, “We use local products and ingredients in our restaurant whenever possible.”

When I go out to eat, I am  attracted to restaurants that champion farmers, small-scale producers and food artisans, by procuring products and featuring local ingredients that are responsibly sourced and presented. Often I come across people whose criticism of the local food movement has centred on the idea that it is elitist. Being a dedicated food professional requires education and connoisseurship, which in themselves are costly to cultivate but not necessarily elitist. The same criticism extends to shopping and supporting farmers’markets.

Farmers’ markets are a long-standing tradition, but not all farmers’ markets are created equal. The term farmers’ market is used broadly to describe a variety of operations that sometimes offer more diverse products than a strictly defined producer-only farmers’ market. Sometimes shopping at a farmers’ market is a way of supporting local farmers, so long as you employ a liberal definition of the term local. Other times there are strict guidelines in place that ensure that a producer-only market consists principally of farmers selling directly to the public goods that their farms have produced.

There are differing ideas as to what constitutes a farmers’ market. In some cases the definition is also a municipal issue. In London Ontario, the Middlesex Health Unit defines a farmers’ markets exemption from the Food Premises Regulation when the majority (51% or greater) of vendors retailing at the market are producers of farm products who are primarily selling their own products. In Ontario a province-wide producer-only farmers’ market authority makes decisions about what is and what isn’t a “certified” farmers’ market. Farmers’ Markets Ontario (FMO) is the association representing the province’s farmers’ markets that meet and maintain stringent standards. The organization is focused on assisting the development of community-based farmers-only farmers’ markets. Farmers’ markets, as defined by the FMO, are seasonal, multi-vendor, community-driven (not private) organizations selling agricultural food, art and craft products including home-grown produce, home-made crafts and value-added products where the majority of vendors are primary producers. Farmers’ Market Ontario lists 175 markets and counting. 

One of the most frequent oversights that businesses make, even unintentionally, is greenwashing — making ambiguous statements about something that is perceived to be “green” when in reality the claim is motivated by profit rather than in the spirit of improving the environment. The term greenwashing relates to the practice in which hyperbole and propaganda are employed to encourage the false perception that a business or organization’s products and policies are eco-friendly, or that environmental responsibility is a core business ethic, when in fact it is lacking. Greenwashing has become a commonplace ruse in our modern world to sell just about everything.

Imagine my scepticism after I discovered that an “artisan” cheese which I had praised at one of my favourite farm-to-table restaurants, and then touted, turned out not to be a handcrafted farmstead cheese and the essence of Quebec’s terroir, but a mass-produced cheese made with inferior ingredients instead of fresh milk. The “artisan” farmer featured on the bucolic packaging was the invention of some marketing agency.

Ontario has developed the Local Food Strategy to help increase the profile, access to, and demand for local food. The foundations of this strategy are the Local Food Act, and the Local Food Fund.  Since 2013, The Local Food Act has been part of a strategy to build Ontario’s economy and agri-food sector by making more local food available in educational institutions, cafeterias, grocery stores, markets and restaurants. Its objective is to improve local food literacy, and encourage the demand for homegrown food, by requiring the Ministry to establish aspirational local food goals and targets in consultation with stakeholders that have an interest. The Act creates a non-refundable tax credit of 25 per cent for farmers who donate their surplus harvest to eligible community food programs such as food banks. The policy also proclaims Local Food Week that takes place annually, beginning the first Monday in June. 

Feast On™ certification program recognizes businesses committed to sourcing Ontario grown and made food and drink. It brings together diners and restaurants and farmers who share an interest in choosing and serving locally grown and produced foods and beverages in Ontario. It is a criteria-based designation system, designed to increase the profile and demand for local food by identifying restaurateurs and foodservice operators dedicated to procuring and serving Ontario foods and beverages and whose particular attributes qualify their commitment to local food. Feast ON™. 

Supporting the local economy and Ontario’s farmers is important; especially for the food service industry. It builds local food identities, it puts money back into our communities and it helps limits our environmental footprint.  A Feast On™ certification demonstrates you’re commitment to the local food culture.

Feast ON™ recognizes foodservice businesses committed to showcasing Ontario grown and produced food and drink. Restaurant operations in all their incarnations — from food trucks to fine dining — sourcing a minimum of 25% Ontario food products and 25% beverage products can be certified with the Feast ON  seal, assuring consumers an “authentic” taste of Ontario.
Being green not only has a certain rarified status, it is politically correct and valued by both eco-friendly and non-green consumers alike. Yet green and sustainable must be two of the most overused and confusing words in the lexicon for faux environmental responsibility. Marketers and advertising agencies toss around deliberately ambiguous words like “pure”, “non-toxic”, “chemical-free”, “environmentally-friendly”, “energy efficient” and “natural”, or ascribe hollow eco-certifications to greenwash their products.

In the dog-eat-dog world of factory-farming and giant multinationals, unscrupulous marketers like to trigger consumer’s feelings of guilt and shame when designing advertising appeals. One of the most powerful motivators in marketing is exploiting consumers’ fears about the health and welfare of the planet and whether it will be healthy enough for people in the future to meet their needs. It seems that some of the most profitable corporate brands in the world have mastered how to successfully transform our concerns into their profits
It seems to me that the logic goes something like this: If consumers value the environment for its beauty and biodiversity, and if a product’s messaging and aesthetic reflect those principles, consumers are likely to align themselves with that eco-friendly ethos. Positioning a brand is about showing the clients that your products share their principles and are in sync with the consumer’s identity.

I believe that there is a need for geographic indicators and certification to help protect farmers’ and producers’ and differentiate and authenticate our distinctly unique and traditional regional products. As a member of the Feast ON™ Advisory Group I am interested in connecting with  colleagues in the restaurant/foodservice sector who may be interested in advancing the local food community and those interested in achieving Feast ON  certification.

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