There are many key components that keep a city functioning, but if you would want to check up on its overall health, it’s helpful to follow how it moves its food around.  Seriously, it’s one of the main ways you can judge just how integrated things are.

If healthy local food from the region is largely bypassing a city on its journey to other markets, then you know there’s a problem.  Should there be numerous food deserts that leave significant holes for food resources in neighbourhoods, it has a serious impact on citizens, especially for those in low-income situations or who aren’t mobile. If there are successful urban gardens that experience difficulty in the distribution of their harvests to locations that require them because of a lack of institutional support, then clearly something needs to be unblocked.  Or if food trucks aren’t permitted to transport their quality foodstuffs into areas of town that desire them, then that’s a whole other problem.

There are many such dysfunctions in communities today, but perhaps the most telling is just how much good food is directed to landfill sites that otherwise could have been put to better economic or charitable use.  It’s one thing for a city to attempt to remove the blockages that keep food from moving freely through its streets, but it’s especially serious – some say immoral – when good food ends up in landfills it was never destined for and which creates the kind of serious methane gas that contributes significantly to global warming.

A few years ago, some of us at the London Food Bank began looking into how food was flowing through our good city in an effort to reflow, replenish or rescue good food that wasn’t getting to its needed destination.  What we discovered prompted us to be one of the founding members of the Middlesex-London Food Policy Council – a group tasked with developing sound action items and policies in a collaborative and coordinated way across the region and not just London itself.

While the London Food Bank is now in its 32ndyear, the majority of that time saw us working effectively with grocery stores in the city at numerous levels, including through national and provincial networking opportunities.  Over the years, grocery stores began offering their surplus products to us in what eventually became a steady and sustainable stream of corporate goodwill.  It was successful enough that 43% of all donated items are of the fresh food variety.  But it had all come together organically over the years with no real systemic architecture that was city-wide.

Until yesterday.  When the food bank sat down with officials from the City of London and the Middlesex-London Food Policy Council, we quickly learned that there was a keen desire to “rescue” healthy food from grocery stores at a wide level.  And since the London Food Bank was already working on an ad hoc basis with the city’s stores and had the infrastructure to support it, it was agreed that a new comprehensive effort be established that not only freed the area landfills from such products, but also redirected them to families suffering in food insecurity. Western University is also assisting with the research and design of the effort. The enterprise was formalized and yesterday was the press conference announcing the effort, recognizing that it was a plan launched by the City, managed by the London Food Bank, and guided by the Food Policy Council and university research.

The food bank has also been working with farmers in the region for a number of years through the Community Harvest program, and with assistance from London’s Western Fair Association, to pretty much accomplish the same thing in rural areas.  But this move to establish a city-wide effort with numerous partners is a significant development in our city’s move forward.

And for the London Food Bank it represents perhaps the biggest challenge we have faced in the last three decades.  We are working with others to secure a large enough warehouse, with walk-in cooler and freezer space, to house the food, that will then be distributed to other agencies.  Additional vehicles with similar capacities will have to be procured.  There’s a lot to do, but we as a food bank board have been encouraged by the leadership already being demonstrated by the grocery stores and their corporate headquarters.  They are releasing their produce earlier in the process, which permits us extra time to get it to its next destination.

The challenge is intense, but the London Food Bank remains committed to assisting with such efforts to keep food flowing more easily throughout our city and region as a means for making our community healthier and more functional.  We have also been taking a lead in bringing partners to together in an effort to establish a regional southwestern Ontario food hub within London, which will prove to be a significant step forward in food sustainability and locally grown production capacities.

So, yes, follow how food moves about in London in the next few years as an indication of how our community is coming together, eating together and collaborating together in a manner that’s not only good for the environment and struggling families, but for a community that’s taking its food responsibility seriously enough to chart a new course for the future.  For the food bank the challenge is there, but we couldn’t be more committed to it, for the sake of all Londoners.