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Field to distant Table 

People talk a good game about buying local, but the vast majority of our food comes from far, far away.

click to enlarge MATTHEW MORGAN

The buy local movement is exploding, in spirit. But when we aren't buying meat and produce direct from farmers, it's hard to know where it comes from.

Most food is distributed globally, travelling from field to distant processing facility to distant table. Food distribution is an industry dominated by giants.

In Nova Scotia, there are exceptions. "There are three locally owned and operated full-line food service distributors in Nova Scotia," says Ted Devitt, president of Armstrong Food Service in Kingston. "Armstrong Food Service, Eastern Food Service and Ideal Food Service in Cape Breton work very closely with local producers. We are the only real option for local cattle and hog producers for slaughter."

Armstrong has been around for more than 100 years.

"The produce is all sourced locally," Devitt says. "All our beef is from Nova Scotia, most of our pork is from Nova Scotia and a little from PEI."

Which is crucial to the local food movement because "a company like Dominion Produce, which has an heirloom rainbow carrot, would have to jump through so many hoops to get into a major market like Texas, and producers are not generally good marketers."

Aside from the quotidian tasks of slaughter and processing, these three companies specialize in connecting local food producers to bigger markets than they could access themselves.

"The thought process has been it's cheaper to buy into the global system verses producing our own food," Devitt notes. "But we have 15 sales reps selling to restaurants and some to Pete's Frootique and various freshmarts. And Avery's carries our produce."

Large retailers have centralized distribution systems where, like Wal-mart, the lowest price is law. That means foods imported from Chile, Mexico---McWorld---win out. Local is relegated to ma and pa operations and occasional specialty shops like Local Source. (Devitt is a big fan of Local Source, shops there regularly.)

As a result, Devitt says a whopping $97 out of every $100 is spent on imported food in this province.

But by focusing on premium food service for restaurants, Armstrong has set reasonable prices ensuring farmers, and the company's 110 employees, get paid something.

"We're big enough to supply but small enough to be efficient and have relationships," Devitt says.

To keep local food from going extinct, Devitt thinks we need more awareness and appreciation of where our food dollars go. "Local product is usually more expensive," he acknowledges, "but that's because of our wages and taxes." Canadian farms can't compete with developing country wages.

And our palates have become used to the variety of a global market. In the winter, it's cheaper to import fresh berries from Mexico than eat frozen berries grown locally during the summer.

click to enlarge MATTHEW MORGAN

There's still more talk than action on local food. "Many restaurants talk a good came," Devitt says. "Capital Health talks a lot about local food but they have to stay within a budget."

Education is essential, he says, but so is enforcing the more progressive policy already on the books. "This province has a policy that if you accept provincial money you should buy local---but it has no teeth."

Much of our meat is exported for processing because there is just one federally-certified abattoir east of Montreal, Devitt says. Nova Scotia beef leaves the province and hits the commodity market, where price is king.

Armstrong is working to obtain federal designation as an abattoir. Because it is provincially inspected it can't even supply its sister company, Eastern Food Supply, with beef. Eastern is federally inspected.

"There are 13 abattoirs being transitioned from provincial to federal certification," Devitt says. "We could have three times the meat supplied locally."

That could translate into money staying in province. "There are sales of about $5 million in beef here that is not local---from Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and the US."

Devitt is also trying to convince the Nova Scotia Cattle Producers association to jointly produce labelled local beef, "so you know a Nova Scotia steak when you see one."

Chris Benjamin is the author of Eco-Innovators: Sustainability in Atlantic Canada and the novel Drive-by Saviours.

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