Rapid Action Resources for Local Governments: Local Food Systems

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, social and economic impacts continue to emerge for communities here in British Columbia. In response, PlanH has developed a series of Rapid Action Resources to support local governments and Indigenous governments with an understanding of the equity considerations around various aspects of food security, as well as examples of good practices in food security from other local governments in the province. Food security is complex and addressing the various aspects of food security—food systems and food insecurity—will require action at various levels to positively affect outcomes for individuals, families and communities.This resource explores some of the considerations around Local Food Systems and provides examples of partnership, policy, advocacy and investment being undertaken to strengthen these systems by local governments and Indigenous governments around the province.


In this series:


What is a food system?

A food system is “an integrated view of the production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste management of food.”1 For most communities in B.C., the food system that supplies the majority of food that makes up our diets is highly globalized and industrial.2 A quick glance at the food labels in our grocery carts serves as an easy reminder that much of our food—as well as its processing, packaging and disposal—comes and goes from regions all across Canada and the globe.

Sidebar: A food system is composed of five key components:

  1. Production: Growing and/or harvesting food for any use, including Indigenous plants and harvest techniques
  2. Processing: Processing, manufacturing and packaging food and drink, including Indigenous methods
  3. Distribution: Storage, transportation and sale between producers, processors and various market channels (e.g. retail, farmers markets, farm-gate sales, restaurants)
  4. Consumption: Marketing and retailing; preparing and serving; eating and drinking at home, restaurants or in the community; including Indigenous and culturally relevant options
  5. Disposal: Management of food and food-related waste, including recycling of material back into the system (reduce, reuse, recycle, recover)
    Resource: Planting the Seeds for a Sustainable Future (City of Kamloops)

    Image credit: Institute of Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. View the full image.

Nested within our globalized food system, local food systems constitute a small, yet growing portion of our overall food system.3 Local food systems contain the same elements as national and international systems—production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste—but operate with all components taking place within a local geographic area.

Why invest in local food systems?

For Indigenous governments and local governments, the benefits of strengthening local food systems include creating greater social and environmental accountability in our food systems, and supporting fairer access to food and to the financial, social, cultural and health resources that food systems produce.

Though globalized food systems reliably supply food to and from markets across the planet, they can also create barriers to accessing healthy food through policies and structures which benefit the few over the many.4 Things like unjust working conditions, local job loss, declining economic opportunity, uncompetitive consumer markets, increased pollution and environmental degradation are all byproducts of the globalized food system’s market share and its detachment from any single community.5 Enhancing our local food systems acts as an antidote to these problems by building systems that are more transparent, democratic and accountable to the health and well-being of our communities, while also supporting sovereignty over food choices at the individual, family and community level. Local food systems are better positioned to address food system inequities, because rather than detaching communities and community members from food, local food systems allow for decisions that affect individuals’ access to food to be informed and decided by those who are most impacted.

Local food systems’ role in strengthening food security

Community food security is obtained when all community members have a “safe, personally acceptable, nutritious diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes healthy choices, community self-reliance and equal access for everyone.”6 

For Indigenous governments and local governments, supporting local food systems not only helps communities to be less reliant on food imports and international supply chains—and therefore less vulnerable to market disruptions—it also provides many other benefits that are more subtle and far-reaching. Local food systems play a multi-faceted role in improving food security as a result of physical proximity and close personal ties to the communities they serve. They also tend to produce foods that are fresher and more culturally appropriate for all community members.7 They may adopt and facilitate food-related practices that are more economically and environmentally sustainable, keeping money within the local economy and stewarding the land with greater care.8 Local food systems can operate as economic drivers and employers that improve the economic conditions of community members and support food security. And, through their connection and care for people they serve, local food systems are well positioned to give community members the access, knowledge, opportunities and resources needed to communicate and advocate for more equitable and sustainable changes locally and across the food system as a whole.

COVID-19 context

COVID-19’s disruption of food supply chains resulted in decreased food access and availability across B.C., revealing and intensifying the need to make equitable, systemic changes to our food systems to improve food security. By strengthening local food systems, local governments make it easier for their community members to be less reliant on food imports and international supply chains, reducing the impact international labour and market disruptions have on their communities. Local food systems can foster more equitable economic development, including better wages, equitable pay scales and more dollars staying within the local economy. They also often facilitate better working conditions because of greater personal accountability to the community members they employ. These economic and social factors can make a significant difference for community members facing pandemic-related physical, social, mental, emotional and cultural health consequences, in the short and long term. 

Equitable development of local food systems

When making investments in local food systems, Indigenous governments and local governments can maximize their impact by thinking critically about who will be able to benefit from these investments and how, as well as who may be left out. This is often referred to as an equity lens. Will those who benefit the most be those who are the most in need? What combination of investments will ensure those who need the most support get the most support; what will reduce barriers for those who face the most barriers? For example, consider a local government who is attempting to address inadequate or unreliable access to food by equity-seeking community members, in particular those who lack resources such as time and money. In this case, investment in infrastructure for high-cost-food distribution (such as high-end farmers’ markets), is unlikely to improve access. In contrast, establishing a food advocacy body, such as a local government committee or food policy council, that includes individuals who have experience living with inadequate access to food can ensure actions and recommendations from the advocacy body truly reflect the needs of equity-seeking groups.

Below are some examples of actions communities are taking to enhance their local food systems in order to provide more accessible nutritious foods, improve agricultural economic opportunities, increase food worker incomes and use local food initiatives as launching pads to advocate for changes to our overall food system.

Improve access to nutritious and culturally appropriate food

Example: In 2012, the District of Saanich adopted a Local Food Procurement Policy, which states that all District of Saanich Divisions that purchase food for operational needs, or who are engaged in leasing Saanich-owned space to operators of food concessions, will ensure 40% of purchases are local when operationally and economically practical, with “local” being defined as food that is grown on Vancouver Island. The policy’s intent is to support local producers, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, provide healthier food choices at municipal events and increase awareness of food that is grown locally. 

Example: K’nmalka? Senqualten (Kalamalka Garden) is an Indigenous garden created in 2017 as a collaboration between the Okanagan Indian Band, Okanagan College and the Food Action Society of the North Okanagan. Located in Coldstream, the garden contains Indigenous plants gathered and given by the Okanagan people, together with other native species Indigenous to this region. Cultural teachings from the garden include use, harvesting and preservation knowledge.

Improve access to agricultural economic opportunities

Example: With financial support from the Ministry of Agriculture, the City of Port Alberni recently launched a food processing and innovation hub in partnership with the Port Alberni Port Authority and the City of Quesnel is developing Sprout Kitchen, a regional food hub and business incubator. Part of a growing number of regional food hubs across the province, these spaces offer local food businesses easy and affordable access to food and beverage processing facilities, equipment and services. 

Example: Concerned about the rising cost of farmland impeding farmers, six municipalities (Highlands, North Saanich, Saanich, Sidney, View Royal, Victoria) and many community partners on the Saanich Peninsula have referred letters of support to the Capital Regional District with a request for the creation of a regional farm and foodlands trust program. The goal of the foodlands trust is to offer greater access to agricultural lands by amassing primarily public, agriculturally productive land and offering long-term leases to farmers who can’t afford to purchase farmland outright. 

Example: Run by the Young Agrarians, the B.C. Land Matching Program (BCLMP) is an initiative funded by the Province of British Columbia, with support from Columbia Basin Trust, Cowichan Valley Regional District and Real Estate Foundation. The BCLMP, and its dedicated Land Matchers, facilitate relationships and agreements between landowners who are looking for someone to farm their land and farmers who need land to either start growing or expand their operations. Due to its success, the Land Matching Program was recently expanded to Central and Northern B.C., where the rising cost of farmland is a growing concern for farmers in those regions.

Improve access to knowledge and advocacy

Example: The Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD) passed resolutions to endorse the formation of the Comox Valley Food Policy Council (CVFPC), directing staff to identify opportunities for collaboration in support of CVRD services and strategic priorities, and appointing the Electoral Area Director to the CVFPC. Food Policy Councils provide a forum for community and food system stakeholders to work collaboratively to examine the operation of the local food system and provide ideas and policy recommendations for how it can be improved.

Example: Located on the Fraser Valley Farm in Aldergrove B.C., Glorious Organics is a cooperatively owned and operated farming collective. Not only does Glorious Organics produce food that it sells to restaurants, farmers markets and through its CSA program, it also educates community members about farming and food and protecting the environmental integrity of the land

Example: The Nechako Valley Food Network (NVFN), a non-profit based in Vanderhoof, focuses on local food systems planning at the individual, community and systems level. Over the past 12 years, NVFN has focused on connecting local consumers and producers by collaborating with local and regional organizations, and by supporting individuals to grow food. The NVFN Vanderhoof Community Garden provides an accessible space for all members of the community, offering mentorship, supports and collaboration around growing food. The Community Garden also collaborates with the District of Vanderhoof and the School District on the local Farm to School program, which educates children on growing, harvesting and processing, while using food the Garden produces in its hot lunch and back-pack programs that support children who are experiencing food insecurity. At a broader systems level, the NVFN is working with the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako in their efforts to explore the feasibility of a regional food hub. This planning process seeks input from local producers–both large and small–non-profits, governmental bodies, First Nations, dietitians, Northern Health and policy makers, to ensure that all viewpoints, priorities and objectives are considered.

Promote local food systems through food systems planning

Indigenous governments and local governments can enhance their local food system by taking a holistic food systems planning approach that “addresses the impacts of the entire food system on societal and environmental wellbeing.”9 Opportunities for communities to interact with local food systems are obtained through the built environment, land-based activities such as harvesting of traditional foods, protection and stewardship of land and aquatic habitats and species, service provision and infrastructure, poverty reduction and other work related to the social, cultural, environmental and economic sustainability of their communities.

Community and regional planning are important activities in providing sustainable and equitable access for communities to be able to produce, process, distribute, consume and dispose of food. Communities can build stronger local food systems through local strategic planning and policy development, land use planning and infrastructure development. These tools can be used more effectively when communities take a holistic view of food security. Governments can link the many ways our food systems interact with work that is already taking place at a local level across the built, natural, cultural, social and economic environments.

Example: The City of Richmond Food Charter supports the implementation of the sustainability framework. A food charter is a non-binding set of principles that articulates a community’s values concerning food security and the local food system from production to waste management. The Richmond charter outlines a commitment to social justice, community health and well-being, and makes connections between food security, economic, environmental, social and cultural sustainability.

Example: In 2011, the Regional District of Central Kootenay developed an agricultural plan based on independent research and information collected during multiple community engagements that targeted the region’s farmers and growers. The plan includes a host of viable recommendations that support its three central goals: identify priority actions to support the viability of farming in the District, ensure that the agricultural capability of the area is realized and create a secure food supply for the region. 

Example: The City of Langford amended its Affordable Housing, Parks and Amenity Contribution Policy to support the regional urban containment boundary and alleviate the pressure placed on the City’s remaining agricultural land. The City of Langford now requires developers to pay into an Agricultural Land Reserve Acquisition Fund, as a condition of density bonusing at the time of rezoning, in the amounts of $600, $800 or $1500 per residential unit and $500 per 3000sqft.     

Example: When developing its False Creek Flats Area Plan, the City of Vancouver took into account that amending land-use plans can increase land value and make operating local food businesses less economically viable. The plan seeks to enhance its local food system by protecting and intensifying “land use that supports food related businesses, such as urban farming and food processing and distribution,” as well as prioritizing local food related business on City-owned sites.

Food Sovereignty, Indigenous foods and traditional practices

Colonialism has had dramatic impacts on the health and wellness of Indigenous peoples, and as a result, many Indigenous plants and traditional food cultivation and processing practices are no longer in use or known to many community members.10 In addition, most of the unceded territories that were used as traditional harvesting sites are now privatized or contaminated, permits are required, and foods must be approved by an authority, all of which have disrupted traditional food systems. Indigenous governments across B.C. continue to support self-determination and food sovereignty through efforts that re-connect communities to traditional food systems. Actions to promote local food systems by local governments should examine how such efforts can either supplant and impede, or support and increase traditional foods and the food sovereignty of Indigenous peoples.

Example: In 2017, the Capital Regional District signed a Traditional Use and Access Agreement with T’Sou-ke Nation for Sea to Sea Regional Park. The agreement provides T’Souke Nation with access and harvesting rights for traditional foods and medicines growing in the park.

Example: With the help of PlanH funding, the Neskonlith Indian Band is working toward an Indigenous Plant Stewardship Strategy. In conjunction with external collaborators such as Interior Health Authority, the First Nations Health Authority and member organizations of the Shuswap Trails Regional Roundtable, the strategy seeks to restore some aspects of the Neskonlith’s traditional food systems in order to improve community health outcomes and better connect the Neskonlith people to their culture and community.

Example: In 2019, the Kamloops Food Policy Council, in partnership with Interior Health, the Kamloops Aboriginal Friendship Centre, Interior Community Services, the Lived Experience Committee and the Kamloops Food Bank, hosted Nourish, a community dialogue focusing on poverty as the root cause of household food insecurity and Indigenous food sovereignty. The event offered attendees more insight into how decolonizing the food system can positively contribute to food security.

Resource: Sharing the harvest during the pandemic: Safety precautions for distributing traditional foods (FNHA)

Indigenous governments and local governments who are working to improve food security in their communities should approach food systems planning holistically and embed local food system considerations across departments and areas of authority. When equitably implemented, a strong local food system can provide an array of positive physical, mental, emotional, cultural, social and economic benefits for all community members. Local food systems have the ability to increase the supply of and access to fresh food, increase economic resilience for your community, implement more environmentally sustainable food system policies and be more responsive to local needs, all of which can contribute to building community food security. 

Thank you for following us through our series of food security resources which discuss how Indigenous governments and local governments can support food security in their communities. If you haven’t yet had the chance, check out the other three Rapid Action Resources in order to find additional information and community examples to help you take action around food security in your community. 

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