In 2020 there has been a spotlight on the role and importance of local businesses and keeping them healthy.

When you buy local, your dollar recirculates within your local community. Sustain Ontario refers to this phenomenon as the multiplier effect of buying local food. The multiplier effect is the amount of local economic activity stimulated by the purchase of any one item. The more a dollar circulates in a defined region, and the faster it circulates, the more income, wealth, and jobs it creates.

The story of two apples

A variety of vegetables in a wooden box sitting in the sunSustain Ontario shares a relevant example that explains what happens when you buy a local product versus an imported product. This specific example focuses on fresh produce but also represents the sale of processed or retail goods such as locally made honey, candles or food from local restaurants.

The first apple is grown in Ontario and sold by an Ontario grocer. The dollar from this apple is used by the grocer to pay the distributor who pays the Ontario apple farmer. The farmer pays his farm staff who, in turn, eat at a local restaurant, leaving the Ontario restaurant owner with more money to invest in maintaining the restaurant and hiring Ontario employees.

Alternatively, let’s look at the case of an apple grown in California and sold by an Ontario grocer. The dollar from this apple is used by the grocer to pay the distributor who pays the importer who then pays the wholesaler. The dollar has left the province and can no longer support local business.

Ripple effects

Produce in baskets next to a sign that says "Fresh Local Produce"The decision to buy local has the power to make a great impact. It is estimated that if every household in Ontario spent $10 a week on local food, there would be an additional $2.4 million in our local economy, creating 10,000 new jobs. Similarly, BC Buy Local shares that if every consumer in British Columbia increased local buying by just 10 per cent, an additional $4.3 billion could be reinvested into the local economy and 14,150 new jobs would be created.

It is important, however, to accept the realities of local purchasing. Sylvain Charlebois, Scientific Director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, explains that with challenges of food security, there cannot be an expectation that every household within a region can afford to buy locally.

Charlebois also discusses the findings from his recent report on food autonomy that identifies the greatest barrier to buying local. Beyond the financial strain, consumers are generally not aware of external factors that influence buying decisions. “Canadians can have the intentions of buying locally, but that all changes when they walk into the grocery store,” says Charlebois. “Convenience, branding, cost – all factors that jump out at buyers. Nearly 80 per cent of Canadians say they are willing to pay more for locally sourced foods but how many actually do?”

Shifting mentality is what can ultimately influence the local food movement. Only 1 in 4 Canadians consider the source of food to be important. This reveals that some consumers may be influenced by the trend of buying local but don’t fully understand the significance of this action.

Breaking down the economics

A person wearing a face mask walking through an outdoor marketAs with most production, the current food system functions under economies of scale. As the price drops, the demand for the food product continues to rise. A large-scale manufacturer is better positioned to meet this rising demand more cost-effectively than a small local farmer or business owner.

This reality has turned into a vicious cycle in which consumers, wanting to save money, buy cheaper products that are not necessarily locally sourced. Manufacturers and retailers reap the profits, enabling them to produce more. Local farmers, who can’t produce large volumes, are forced to keep prices comparatively high in order to make money while consumers prefer to buy the less expensive, imported alternative.

It becomes clear that choosing to buy potentially more expensive locally sourced goods could eventually lead to more affordable prices in the future. If the new consumer trend is to buy local, farmers could afford to produce more and provide a community with the amount of produce required to meet demand.

It is important to acknowledge that there are multiple definitions of ‘buying local’. Charlebois comments on this subject, sharing that “in the Atlantic provinces, local is defined as any product with a Canadian label, but in Ontario or BC, local is only considered within the province.” In other words, local purchasing does not have to be an all-in, all-out approach. Competition is healthy for small farmers and can help them to grow their market share. Exporting to the US or other countries can help Canadian farmers and, in turn, we must accept that we will never be able to cut off imports from other countries.

How to be a better ‘buy local’ food shopper

A group of people posing and smiling with a sign advertising a farmers marketStart by exploring your local community. Discover the quality products that local shops have to offer or food options available at local restaurants that support local business owners. Your local grocery store is another great place to start. For example, Foodland Ontario supports local farmers by branding produce with the Foodland Ontario logo to make it easier to recognize.

Visiting online shops, such as The Locals, is a great way to take advantage of online shopping. This business is based out of Winnipeg, allowing local product developers to come together on an online platform. For a variety of locally grown products, Farmers Canada offers a highly effective way to search for fresh produce, baked goods, or skin products. These options, and many more, increase the accessibility of locally made products.

Increasing awareness of local sources and celebrating farmers and businesses in the community can also bring attention to the need for shopping locally. The Always in Season toolkit, developed by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, among various partners, encourages small communities and local food practitioners to help promote the producers and processors selling locally. Sharing awareness of dates that celebrate agriculture and hosting more events to spread this awareness in the community offer opportunities to promote local producers and retailers.

“The Always in Season project highlights the importance of purchasing from local agri-food businesses year-round,” said Danielle Collins, OFA Policy Analyst. “We started this initiative prior to the pandemic, but now more than ever we hope people will choose to support local farmers and everyone along the agri-food value chain.”

Buying local means more than just paying for your food. You are buying into a relationship with local farmers and supporting your neighbors. Ultimately, you also can learn more about the source of your food, address health or quality concerns, and contribute to restoring value in the food system. It’s a win-win proposition.

Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.

Michelle deNijs

Michelle deNijs

Michelle deNijs earned her degree in International Development from the University of Guelph in 2020. She also chose to specialize in agriculture to complement her passion in developing a strong global food system. Michelle currently works for the Ontario Federation of Agriculture as a Communications Specialist and looks forward to future opportunities of public engagement to support growth of the Canadian agriculture sector.

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