Efficiency (retail)

Restrictions on retail size

Eliminate restrictive covenants on grocery store properties

Amend Community Benefits provisions in urban planning legislation and practice

Improve access to Public Markets

Alternative currencies at alternative markets

Support food retail co-ops and buying clubs

Improve and diversify Northern Food Access

Supports for other alternative community food projects

Restrictions on retail size

Although the evidence in each community is not necessarily definitive, big box retail formats - typically over 50,000 square feet (and often in the 100,000 - 200,000 sq. ft range), with a large parking footprint, usually located on the edge of urban centres, and owned by large chains that dominate their sector, often through predatory pricing practices - are implicated in causing economic problems for smaller formats in downtown locations where transit, bicycles and walking are more viable (some US general retail studies are summarized here). These large formats encourage one-stop weekly shopping trips by automobile, which themselves are implicated in numerous problems (food waste, climate change, inactivity, processed food choices) highlighted in many parts of this site. Similarly, although big box formats typically offer lower-priced goods, food quality is often compromised, suppliers are more challenged financially, and wages are typically suppressed, all phenomena that contribute to food system problems. Difficult research to undertake, most studies have not considered this range of food system impacts.

Some Canadian municipalities have welcomed these large formats, others have attempted to restrict them, usually unsuccessfully because of the limited authority of municipalities and the appeals processes in many provinces that favour developers and scale-oriented developments. Although municipalities typically have zoning authority for height and floor space, the zoning categories are too broad to specify unique requirements for food retail. In contrast, there are many US examples in recent years of zoning restrictions that forbid large-format stores. The Home Town Advantage (Mitchell, 2000) listed eighteen examples of local ordinances limiting store size from all parts of the United States (Institute for Local Self-Reliance. 2003). Even without such ordinances, many US retailers are moving to smaller format stores in targeted areas because they've realized that they are missing out on certain markets and the overhead expenses are lower (Kendall, 2023).  Many European companies and regions are also moving to smaller formats.  Once again, Canada is behind.

The other possible avenue is through the permitting and site planning processes, for both demolition and construction, but these are also crude instruments. Use of crude instruments for specific interventions has often been viewed as capricious by appeal tribunals, but it may help if the municipality has a Food Charter that sets out a coherent policy position on enhancing food access for residents (see MacRae and Donahue, 2013 and Instruments, Policy Statements, Municipal).  Many municipalities now have these, though whether they will help a municipality justify such retail interventions remains an open question since in many municipalities they are relatively recent policies.

An additional constraint is the variability across municipalities, so it actually makes more sense for provincial guidance to be in place. Most of the companies that would be targeted by such interventions are national in scope and will oppose a patchwork of municipal rules. Of course, given the nature of provincial planning, guidance does not necessarily compel a municipality to act, but it at least shows provincial intent. In Ontario, the most obvious vehicle is the Provincial Policy Statement under the Planning Act. It could be argued that several clauses already support municipal restrictions on grocery store size, particularly in more remote locations:

1.1.1 Healthy, liveable, and safe communities are sustained by:

c) avoiding development and land use patterns which may cause environmental or public health and safety concerns;

e) promoting the integration of land use planning, growth management, transit-supportive development, intensification and infrastructure planning to achieve cost-effective development patterns, optimization of transit investments, and standards to minimize land consumption and servicing costs;

f) improving accessibility for persons with disabilities and older persons by addressing land use barriers which restrict their full participation in society;

I) preparing for the regional and local impacts of a changing climate

And ..... Land use patterns within settlement areas shall be based on densities and a mix of land uses which:

b)are appropriate for, and efficiently use, the infrastructure and public service facilities which are planned or available, and avoid the need for their unjustified and/or uneconomical expansion;

c) minimize negative impacts to air quality and climate change, and promote energy efficiency;

d) prepare for the impacts of a changing climate;

e) support active transportation;

f) are transit-supportive, where transit is planned, exists or may be developed;

For all these reasons, some municipalities may already be able to act on size restrictions. At the Substitution stage, powers in this area would be augmented and likely make such interventions even more feasible.

Eliminate restrictive covenants on grocery store properties

Restrictive covenants can be used for both positive (e.g., environmental and heritage protections) and negative (e.g., discriminatory and anti-competitive) purposes. When supermarket chains sell old sites, they often impose a legal restriction in the sale agreement on the use of that site by another supermarket, typically limiting the amount of food that can be sold there to less than convenience store volumes, and often for unspecified periods of time. Earlier studies in both Edmonton and Vancouver found over 15 sites in both cities with restrictive covenants on them (APCCP, 2015). They have also been used for more specialized food and beverage outlets, such as bakeries, meat markets, convenience stores, and restaurants (cf. Ziff and Jiang, 2012).  Such covenants, especially for grocery stores, can have an impact on the availability of quality and affordable food in a neighbourhood, especially for low-income communities (Cameron et al., 2010; Bedore, 2013; Competition Bureau, 2023). Over time, the proximate territorial scope of these covenants, and the need to demonstrate that the non-compete elements are obviously beneficial, have been weakened (Ziff and Jiang, 2012).  In other words, covenants may now exist where the non-compete agreement has no real material impact on the seller, in part because of significant distance between the properties covered in the covenant, begging the question of its legality  In some US cases, supermarket covenants have been overturned because of negative impacts on the public interest (Ziff and Jiang, 2012).

The Food-EPI Canada (Ontario report) recommended changes, "Prohibit restrictive covenant caveats that prevent the establishment of grocery stores or other healthy food vendors in specific areas or premise". The City of Edmonton reviewed the legal circumstances of these private agreements and concluded it did not have the legal authority to block them.  They requested both legislative changes by the province and also that the federal Competition Bureau, when reviewing mergers and acquisitions of grocery store chains, prevent such anti-competitive actions by the the chains.  It appears neither request has been acted upon (APCCP, 2015). All provinces should adopt such restrictions, typically under Land Registration, Property Law or Land Titles legislation, in order to modify or discharge covenants that are contributing to reduced food access, and the Competition Bureau (2023) (which recognizes property controls as a significant issue) should amend its abuse of dominant position in the market place provisions (Ziff and Jiang, 2012) to eliminate their use for grocery store properties and terminate existing covenants.

Amend Community Benefits provisions in urban planning legislation and practice

Although the phenomenon of food deserts is somewhat contested and the literature on supermarket access and health outcomes is not conclusive (Walker et al., 2011), improved health is a likely result of access to affordable, nourishing food.  The phenomenon is less prevalent in Canada than the US, but Canadian research has identified somewhat underserved areas of larger cities where affordable and healthy food options are lacking (e.g., Toronto, London, Ontario) (Larsen and Gilliland, 2008; Martin Prosperity Institute, 2011; Toronto Food Strategy, 2013). The 2015 Toronto Food Strategy update concluded that almost 31,000 households in low-income areas of the city were more than 1km from the closest supermarket and many of these same areas had significant numbers of stores with predominantly unhealthy food.

A typical strategy is to attract stores to underserved areas, though Canadian municipalities have limited tools at their disposal.  Although some planners, like those in the Region of Waterloo, Ontario have attempted to stretch their authority to attract small, independent quality food retail to specific locations, the spectre of an action against them at the Ontario Municipal Board(OMB) (now the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, LPAT)  by developers haunts their initiatives. The OMB/LPAT has a deserved historical reputation for subverting good planning by favouring developers. Although there have been changes implemented by two governments in Ontario in the last few years, it is not yet clear that these will produce better planning related to food.

Because food retail location is primarily a private business decision, and with significant development pressures in many large urban centres (and more localized areas of small to medium-sized urban areas), it is necessary to "encourage" the private sector to alter how it sites retail, and also to create new opportunities for community food access projects. Most provinces have provisions to allow some or all municipalities within their jurisdiction to levy development charges and/or collect community amenity contributions that can be used to benefit communities in or near the urban development project. Not all municipalities take advantage of these provincially-mandated opportunities with local by-laws and guidances. A quick review of these provisions in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, and Halifax reveals, however, that although a number of suitable community benefits are named, none of these jurisdictions views access to food as a priority community benefits category.  Toronto has had a very limited number of cases in the past of alternative food retail being named as a benefit under Section 37 of an earlier Ontario Planning Act (Niezova, 2015), but this has been a rare occurrence. In some cases, this results from the community consultation associated with a new development, though arguably if access to food is not named as a priority community benefit, it is less likely to emerge in community consultations. Equally important, some community benefit funding is only for capital investments, yet many food access initiatives require a combination of capital and operating funds, so this represents a significant constraint.

Access to food must be named as a priority community benefit category. This can happen in provincial guidance associated with a Planning and Development Act, or it can be named at the municipal level. Although somewhat different than the Ontario situation, Vancouver set the stage for such an approach with a new Community Benefits policy that focused on local employment, procurement, and social enterprise. Food access must be specifically identified as a potential benefit in community consultations about development projects, with appropriate data provided on food insecurity in the neighbourhood. Options for conventional vs. alternative food distribution should be provided as part of the presentation by planning officials and with expressions of interest by food access project operators. Large developments that are part of rezoning are required to select from a suite of food assets to include in the development: e.g., community gardens, urban farms, edible landscaping, community kitchens, community food markets, farmers market, and on-site organics management.

Improve access to Public Markets (adapted from Quierolo, 2020)

For centuries, public markets have been the centres of urban settlements. There are various types of public markets, generally organized by their governance (public, private, or municipal), the types of vendors, products they offer and prices, their infrastructure, and recurrence (permanent, semi-permanent, temporary and mobile). Essentially, though, a public market is a year-round or seasonal, carefully crafted, intentional, and diverse medley of locally owned and locally operated shops, stalls, “day tables”, and selling vehicles. Public markets, even when privately operated, exist to fulfill a public purpose and showcase a community’s unique character and culture while serving people’s everyday shopping needs. They enable regular rituals of connection that lead to an increased sense of belonging and add value to the public realm. They are community destinations that promote physical and social health, advance sustainability when well designed for that purpose, strengthen local economies, and foster local social networks and deeper relationships in the neighbourhoods they serve. They give residents access to fresh produce, support small-scale economic activity, and entrepreneurship,  advance regional food system integration, serve as tourism destinations, and can help renew neighbourhoods and downtowns.

Public markets represent a different kind of retail: they promote co-opetition, collaboration, and competition between participating businesses. Over time, these businesses learn that while their own success is vital, they can make the market successful by collaborating with others to deliver good service, increase shared promotional efforts, and support programs that bring the community to the market.

Many diverse forms of public markets exist in many Canadian towns and cities, including northern communities (cf. Schiff and Brunger, 2013 on Happy Valley/Goose Bay, Labrador).  Farmers' markets are probably the most common, and many also have permanent festival markets that attract tourists.  Wholesale markets that sell to a diverse array of small food retailers are also common, for example, the Ontario Food Terminal.  The most famous of these retail markets - Jean Talon and Atwater in Montreal, the Seaport Farmers' Market in Halifax, the Fredericton Boyce Farmers' Market,  Byward Market in Ottawa, St. Lawrence Market in Toronto, Le Marche St. Norbert Farmers' Market in Winnipeg, Saskatoon Farmers' Market, the Calgary Night Market, Granville Island Market in Vancouver - are often profiled in tourism literature. However, in many cities, their value is not fully recognized. Covid-19 highlighted this, as many were shut down (or could not viably open), rather than being viewed as essential services to provide food to residents. Even prior to Covid-19, many struggled due to a lack of support from municipal government and often arcane patchworks of rules and reporting responsibilities that reduced their effectiveness. In this environment, both sellers and buyers have suffered. Creating a robust public market ecosystem is important for food security, economic development, rural-urban integration, and resilience. But it won't happen without significant interventions by municipal governments.

Analysis of the public markets scene is spotty, but some information is provided below.


Toronto currently has more than 105 public markets, a few with deep historical roots (see Quierolo, 2020 for historical timelines of public support for markets). They operate in public parks, city facilities, public and private parking lots, religious and educational institutions, community hubs, mobile locations, and private spaces. They embrace diverse models, audiences, and mandates that respond to residents’ needs. They often address municipal gaps in food retail (see Quierolo, 2020 for maps), providing access to fresh, local, high-quality produce to tens of thousands of residents. Toronto’s public markets support the livelihoods of almost 3000 small and medium businesses across the city, including local farmers, food producers, resellers of fresh food and non-food items, craftspeople, artisans, and producers of prepared or ready-to-eat food. 84% of vendors focus on food-related product (produce or re-sell fresh food, added value food products, prepared food). Over half a million pounds of fresh food were sold in 2019, and over 20,000/week shopped at farmers' markets.

However, public markets are not equitably distributed across the city, with many neighbourhoods, usually low-income and racialized, having limited access to affordable food retail and no public markets. Different markets are regulated under very different rules by very different City units, resulting in a patchwork of uncoordinated and uneven regulation, oversight, and support. City staff from Toronto Public Health, Parks Forestry and Recreation, Municipal Licensing and Standards, Facilities & Real Estate, Transportation Services, Waste Management, and Economic Development and Culture all play some roles with public markets. Market operators and vendors are confused and fragmented in their requests as a result. There is no one place where residents, entrepreneurs, and tourists can get information about Toronto’s public markets. The City of Toronto does not have a  map of public markets on its website. The City has not integrated public markets into the core plans for which they offer solutions, including the Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan, the Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism, the Emergency Plan, the Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy 2020, and Transform TO: Climate action for a healthy,
equitable, prosperous Toronto. One initiative that would appear to support markets is the Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) zoning associated with 400 Tower Renewal sites in the city. Under this zoning, small-scale food businesses can be established and food produced on site can be sold at an on-site market. Many of the apartment towers exist in areas of the city poorly served by conventional retail.


In 2017, Vancouver had 11 Farmers' Markets and 11 Community Markets, hoping to double those numbers by 2020 (Vancouver Food Strategy Update report, 2017). These efforts were linked to both the food access provisions of the Vancouver Food Strategy, and the integration of local food assets (farmers markets, community food markets and urban agriculture) with climate action. The Greenest City Action Plan recognises that a more robust local food system reduces the environmental impact of food production and transportation. They set out to increase city-wide and neighbourhood food assets, including farmers' and community markets, by a minimum of 50% over 2010 levels by the end of 2020, and claim the overall target has been met, though the specific Markets targets were unlikely to be achieved due to local vendor constraints.


Montreal has five large permanent markets open all year round - Jean Talon, Atwater, St. Jacques, Maisonneuve, de Lachine - and a range of seasonal markets open from April to October. Many subway stations have small to medium open-air fresh produce markets. They also have fish markets and solidarity markets that provide fresh produce, honey, and baked goods at affordable prices for lower-income communities.

Montreal has a food system action plan that includes improving access to public markets, developed by the Conseils Système Alimentaire Montréalais under the aegis of Montréal, Métropole en Santé. This broad collaboration includes leadership from the City of Montreal and the Regional Public Health authority.

Montreal believes its public markets are essential to many city functions. The permanent public markets remained open as did grocery stores. It opened seasonal public markets early in the pandemic, with the Mayor issuing the following statement, “Montrealers' food security is a priority for our administration, even more so in the context of the current health crisis. Seasonal markets give access to high-quality, reasonably priced local products. Through these markets, we support our local agricultural producers, businesses, and artisans, and we contribute to food diversity, particularly in areas where food is not readily accessible locally. Montrealers eagerly await their seasonal markets in these neighbourhoods, in order to have access to fresh produce”.

Barcelona (adapted from Taylor, 2016 and Quierolo, 2020)

Barcelona is often presented as an aspiration case. It has a very long history of public markets (for a quick review, see Taylor, 2016) and now can claim to have one of the most robust public market ecosystems in Europe (Miller, 2015). However, it wasn't always that way, as the system has had significant periods of ups and downs and was in serious decay for much of the 20th century.  Based on a Market Hall approach associated particularly with Paris, now a network of dozens of weekly, part­-time open-air markets and full-­time enclosed Public Markets provide access to food and goods (Guàrdia et al, 2015).

Key to the revival was;

  • the city’s standardization and rationalization of food provision  enhanced  fairness in the system for customers and vendors alike;
  • the 1989 municipal code modernized the rules and regulations of public markets;
  • consistent investment kept them from falling into disrepair.
  • the tenacity and grit of the vendor community which fought to exist in  the public spaces of the city and for the city’s investment in market halls (Guardia et al, 2010; Miller, 2015)
  • slowing the introduction of conventional supermarkets
  • the existence of a Municipal Institute for Markets

Barcelona has made a concerted effort to position its system of public markets as instruments for neighbourhood planning and social cohesion. Investments in infrastructure and social services are made around the markets. Many markets have retained their architectural integrity and character. Most customers travel by foot. Vendor Associations are not allowed to fix prices, in the spirit of competition to keep prices affordable. The public market share of overall food, grocery, and retail sales were estimated in 2006, at approximately 29% of all food sales, substantially beyond percentages of any other post-industrial city, though short of Barcelona’s golden age of Markets. The number of vendors has also fallen significantly over the last few decades (Guardia and Oyon, 2015). And challenges do remain. Some markets that attract a significant number of tourists receive substantially more investment than other markets serving neighbourhoods. Most importantly, Barcelona is positioning itself as a Market City, consistent with the principles of the Project for Public Spaces (see Substitution).

At the Efficiency stage, Quierolo (2020) has identified key municipal interventions specific to Toronto, but some of those likely applicable to many other urban areas are highlighted here.

  1. Establish a  Markets Task Force, if one doesn't exist,  that brings together City divisions and the sector to advance the effectiveness of public markets.
  2. Regulate public markets under one city division and assign staff as the
    primary contact, reduce the complexity of the permitting process.
  3. Launch an “I Love Markets” campaign.
  4. Make public markets hubs for food and climate change education and information about city’s programs and resources.
  5. Encourage BIPOC participation in Toronto public markets as vendors, market managers, and teachers of Indigenous foodways.
  6. Revise provincial and municipal rules regarding a food premise to permit urban growers and food artisans to process low-risk foods in non-commercial kitchens.
  7. Support equity-seeking groups in the delivery of current and new markets at the neighbourhood level, especially in areas most impacted by food insecurity.
  8. Integrate existing City training and supports for small and medium businesses for public market operators and vendors.

Alternative currencies at alternative markets (adapted from Quierolo, 2020; Kushnir and Crouthers, 2022)

Alternative or community currencies have existed in various forms in Canada for some time. They essentially create ways of exchanging goods and services without relying on, but as a complement to, national currencies. They represent a way for community residents to favour local businesses with less demand on their household budget. A number have been important for alternative markets.

The BC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Coupon Program is funded by the Province's  Health Services Authority, and is recognized by the Ministry of Agriculture as a means to increase access to locally produced foods. At a municipal level, Vancouver Farmers’ Markets created the Fresh to Families Fund to complement the existing provincial, public, and corporate donations. The fund provides access to fresh food to 150 low-income families, newly arrived refugees, and at-risk expectant mothers in Vancouver and Burnaby.

La Carte Proximité Montréal is a private/public partnership led by Carrefour Alimentaire Centre-sud, City of Montréal, and civil society designed to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables and favour short supply chains. It can be used at participating public markets, food co-ops, and some private retail.

A Nova Scotia program was piloted in 2019 by Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia (FMNS) at six markets, expanding to 25 markets by 2021 with a $350,000 grant from the provincial Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage. FMNS partnered with local community organizations to identify food insecure households, using “food bucks” tokens already circulating at markets to protect user confidentiality. The program successfully increased affordability of nutritious food, healthier eating, improved social networks, and generated local economic benefits (Acadia Entrepreneurship Centre [AEC], 2021).

Calgary Dollars, a project of the Arusha Centre, with its roots dating back to 1995, is a platform for locals to trade products and services and encourage neighbourly sentiment. Supported by the City of Calgary, Calgary Foundation, and the private sector, Calgary Dollars are part of the city’s strategy to increase the citizens' ability to withstand social and economic crises.

There have been at least three community currency projects in Toronto over the last three decades. Technology provides ways to facilitate implementation, reduce cost, and address the stigma that can be associated with some of these programs. Currrently, organizations like Transition Toronto are  collaborating with Calgary Dollars to develop the T-Note initiative.

Success is often tied to sufficient scale to create a robust set of places for exchange, and also support at least from the municipal government. Every municipality with a food strategy that supports alternative retail should explore adding an alternative currency program to their actions.

Support food retail co-ops and buying clubs (adapted from Steinman, 2019)

Canada has a long history of food system co-ops, including indigenous co-ops in remote communities (cf. Hammond Ketlison, 2016), or the inner city (cf. Robin and Cidro, 2020; Kouri et al., 2020), and from inputs to manufacturing and distribution, and also at the retail level. Food buying clubs are usually distinguished from retail co-ops by smaller scale, no storefront, and no staff. Co-ops have had periods of great success and also significant demutualization, especially in a neo-liberal era of deregulation and predatory capitalism. Generally co-ops have as high or higher survival rates than corporations, though retail co-ops can be very vulnerable in the start up phases, because:

  • The retail space is too small (500–1,500 square feet), often because of capital or operating fund limitations
  • Startup budgets are too low
  • Unusually short development timelines
  • Over-reliance on labour provided by members, especially management functions for which members may not be well trained
  • Premature site selection, off-the-beaten path locations are often chosen because they're cheaper
  • A key reason for starting the co-op is converting or saving the local grocery store, which creates additional pressures
  • Difficulty meeting the rules regarding sales to members

Running through most of these vulnerabilities are undercapitalization and insufficient management skills to deal effectively with start-up challenges. Of these, the most significant challenge is undercapitlization because it makes all the other forces more difficult to manage. And management failures have certainly contributed to co-op  demise (see for example Webb, 2016 on the failure of Co-op Atlantic), so it is not a marginal consideration, but management supports exist, often from provincial co-op associations, if co-ops choose to take advantage of them. Co-ops rely on members, grants,favourable terms and supports from other co-ops, and sometimes loans, usually from credit unions since traditional banks are less likely to finance smaller retail co-ops.  Linkages between co-ops (supply chain and factors of production) are also often critical to success (Sumner et al., 2014).

For years, co-op advocates have pressed provincial and federal governments, often through their co-op secretariats that provide other kinds of supports, to set up self-financing revolving loan funds dedicated to co-op financing. Food co-ops are likely to fall under provincial jurisdiction unless they have a large enough network of stores and distribution to cross boundaries. Since the Harper administration, the federal government has been more reluctant to provide specific supports to co-ops, preferring to consider them under the wider banner of small- to medium-sized enterprises. Quebec, Saskatchewan and Manitoba provide the most supports to co-ops, and not surprisingly have the highest concentrations of them. Quebec has the strongest instruments for capitalisation, including legislation and statutes to build a domestic capital pool and  solidarity finance instruments such as the Co-operative Investment Plan and venture capital funds with tax advantages for Quebec investors. La Fédération des coopératives du Nouveau-Québec is owned by fourteen member co-ops in the Inuit communities of Nunavik, providing a range of goods and services including food. The Arctic Co-operatives Development  Fund, is owned by the northern Arctic Cooperative network, providing development loans for co-op members in the North, many of which run retail co-ops that include food. The fund was launched in the 1980s with direct and indirect financing from numerous sources including the Government of the Northwest Territories, and it's relatively sizeable capital base compared to other northern co-ops was essential to its success. Working capital loans are its biggest portfolio (Hammond Ketilson, 2016). In 2019, the Quebec Government agreed "to pay $115.8 million over six years to support multiple programs for elders' assistance, airfare reduction, country food community support, household appliance and harvesting equipment, food and other essentials,and gasoline. The food and other essentials program provides rebates between 15 and 35% on the majority of items purchased in Nunavik stores to all Nunavimmiut with the aim of aligning prices with those in southern Quebec stores. The rebate can be applied to food items and goods that are already subsidized by Nutrition North Canada, further reducing prices. Together, this suite of programs represents the only comprehensive policy initiative intended to help bring an Inuit region in line with the rest of Canada by reducing the high cost of living." (ITK, 2021:21)

Every province should have funding arrangements comparable to Quebec (including la Fédération des coopératives du Nouveau-Québec) and the Arctic Co-ops.

Improve and diversify Northern Food Access

The Nunavut Food Security Strategy and Inuit Nunangat Food Security Strategy (ITK, 2021) identify a number of critical elements for improving food access.

Country foods

See Goal 1, Self Provisioning for more on supports for country foods. Some sustainable commercialization of country foods will be important and that requires that harvesters have places to sell, including through grocery stores. What is critical is that southern foods and country foods are both readily available and affordable options and some level of integration is required (see below). Greenland provides a model of how governments can support modest commercialization of country foods (ITK, 2021). The 2021 federal budget proposes to better support country foods access through money allocated for First Nations and Inuit health care systems, and climate change impacts, somewhat less than $20 million. There may also be supports for food security through the National Action Plan in response to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ Calls for Justice and the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. In total, the federal budget identifies $163 million over 3 years in supports for indigenous food security.

Local food production

Food production in northern and remote regions is relatively small, but a growing phenomenon. Perversely, climate change, while creating massive disruptions for country foods, may increase opportunities for agriculture. Each of the territorial governments has an agricultural/food security strategy promoting local food. Whitehorse and Yellowknife are developing and implementing local food strategies that include some of the elements discussed in other solution areas. In addition to over 200 existing census farms and many summer gardens, greenhouses and repurposed structures for indoor production have sprung up in many communities. Projects have been funded a variety of ways including the Canadian Agricultural Partnerships and it's predecessor program. The territorial governments are providing in-kind and regulatory support and sometimes targeted subsidies, grants and loans, for both production and small scale processing. Equally important to building production and processing capacity is the market infrastructure to ensure that local food is effectively and efficiently distributed and consumed locally.

The federal Local Food Infrastructure Fund, announced as part of the roll-out of a national food policy (see Blog posts), names First Nations communities and organizations as eligible for funding. Many communities have processes in place, but not necessarily dedicated resources, to create a vibrant mix of  projects to address local food insecurity and community well-being (cf. Levi, 2020; Gilpin and Hayes, 2020). The program is oversubscribed, lending weight to the criticism that $50 million over 5 years is way too meagre funding to address the substantial needs. Covid-19 has also apparently pushed officials to fund more charity work, rather than develop local food security initiatives (see Supports for other food community projects). The fund needs to be substantially increased in size, with a distinct sub-program designed to support these northern and First Nations action plans. The federal budget 2021 also announced additional funding in the Indigenous Community Support Fund and food security is named as a priority, but what this means in terms of expenditures is unclear. As well, the Northern Isolated Community Initiatives Fund (NICI) has been set up. The NICI aims to support “community-led projects for local and Indigenous food production systems with an emphasis on innovative and practical solutions to increase food security across the North”. The eligibility is broad, and includes NGOs, academic institutions, local or Indigenous governments, and for-profit businesses. According to Kushnir and Crouthers (2022), this is positive, but the allocated budget is deeply inadequate for the scope of the problems.

Some commercial scale local food infrastructure will require investors. The First Nations Finance Authority has helped finance a number of projects in First Nations communities, some related to land and most recently supporting the co-purchase of Clearwater Foods by Mi'kmaq communities. Open to all First Nations, not all are currently participating. The authority should develop a program that supports SME local food infrastructure and this might be a way to expand the number of participating communities.

Grocery store foods

By some calculations, the territories only have about 110 grocery stores in total, spread out over a vast area. Many are operated by the North West Company (built from the foundations of the Hudson's Bay Company) under the banners Northern Store, Northern Quickstop and NorthMart. Some are co-ops (see above). Others are general stores that also sell some food and are not likely included in the 110 figure. There is also an online grocer, Arctic Fresh, that partners with southern stores to provide goods and logistics. Some councils have pop-up stores that better serve local needs (cf. Thompson and Pritty, 2020). Outside of the co-op system, there is a high degree of monopoly/oligopoly in many communities.

There are two main dimensions to this strategy. Governments should continue to support the co-ops operating in the North (see above), adding more of them to the list of eligible suppliers under Nutrition North since historically very few co-ops serve in that capacity (Stroink and Nelson, 2013). Related to this, there should also be start up supports for community-based stores that are not necessarily co-ops but that are operated by the community.  This approach could build on the Australian Outback store model (Thompson and Pritty, 2020). And the design and execution of Nutrition North needs to be altered. First Nations and other organizations have been calling for continuous improvements, some of which has been implemented in the 2016 and 2019 revisions, but more along these lines needs to be done. The number of eligible communities should continue to expand. Food prices remain problematic, which means either the subsidy will have to increase or the government will have to regulate prices charged by grocery stores, especially for the most nourishing food items.  Fuller integration with supports for country foods must happen. The food bank system, at least as a short-term and emergency measure, would like to see charitable foods and supplies covered by the subsidy (Food Banks Canada, 2019). The 2021 federal budget proposes to add "$163.4 million over three years, starting in 2021-22, to expand the Nutrition North Canada program and enable the Minister of Northern Affairs to work directly with Indigenous partners, including in Inuit Nunangat, to address food insecurity" (p. 217). These discussions could result in the improvements proposed here. The increased allocations to the Indigenous Community Support Fund is also supposed to cover some food security programming, but what and how much is unclear at this point.

Air and marine freight infrastructure

Underlying many of the challenges for improving food access is the state of air and marine freight infrastructure. Many communities are largely dependent on air freight for food, fuel and other supplies related to hunting, fishing and trapping. The airstrips are often too short for efficient loads, in poor conditions and lack adequate lighting and weather services. Many routes operate at a loss for the northern airlines, and recent airline consolidation means competition on routes is limited. During COVID-19 governments have provided temporary subsidies that should be made permanent.  The federal government should also invest in northern airport infrastructure improvements, as called for by the Auditor General in 2017. Marine freight is limited by seasons in most communities and related challenges exist for port and dock infrastructure (ITK, 2021; Wilson et al., 2020).

Supports for other alternative community food projects

Grocery stores are not the only viable means to acquire food in urban areas. Although data is limited, it appears that around 1% of food retailing could be classified as direct marketing from farmer to eater (AAFC, 2009) and perhaps a few more percentage points for other schemes with limited intermediaries, such as box delivery, food aggregating hubs, mobile markets, and institutional retailing (see also Goal 3, Integrating food into public spaces). Measures described above can help support alternative food distribution, but additional actions are required, especially because these projects are typically smaller and at a more disaggregated scale, often determined by neighbourhood conditions, and operating with significant NGO and social purpose organization input. Mobile markets, for example, typically run by NGOs, can address in the short term gaps in access in specific neighbourhoods. There are numerous challenges with their operation and financial viability (Weissman et al., 2020) that suggest a targeted and time-limited role until some of the other strategies proposed here create more permanent food access options.

Mount et al, (2013) identified a number of critical barriers for these projects from many interviews with participants:

  • Because the marketplace does not fully value what they are trying to do, and the dominant actors sometimes oppose their existence, they struggle with financing; food pricing is particularly problematic in this regard, since many projects are trying to assure access for low-income people, yet also generate enough revenue for the organization or private business
  • In a difficult environment, management skill is critical and many organizations lack the appropriate capacity
  • Regulatory environments are designed around large food system actors, but many of which have to be met by small scale actors and they are unable to comply because of scale related issues (see Goal 4)

Kushnir and Crouthers (2022) also highlight challenges related to:

  • Optimizing multiple goals, for example affordability for low income people, integrated with locality and sustainability
  • Government policy and program changes that, while not targeting community efforts, have negative ricochet effects on projects, sometimes unintended because government officials haven't properly considered, or don't care about, the implications.

Many launch and survive on a mix of market and non-market income, especially those focusing on low income and racialized communities. Some have a mixed income clientele and ask better off customers to pay more to support low income ones. FoodShare Toronto runs one of the older food box schemes for low income communities. They charge for the boxes, but at prices substantially below many supermarkets. They finance the program with a mix of sales, donations and grants. Because of the diversity of its programs, it was able to create cross-over program synergies and it's uniqueness (especially at that time in the 1990s) garnered it widespread support from different levels of government. The organizational leadership was committed to experimentation, with continuous refinements to programming in the search for greater reach and effectiveness. Community Food Centres Canada runs a Good Food Organizations program that provides toolkits, manuals, videos, and other tools, training, grants for programs and capacity building and network building, all in the spirit of increasing capacity to deliver community food programs.

Food hubs are challenging to define, but they essentially provide multiple functions related to community food programming. Some think of them as a physical distribution centre, but most have a more expansive conception that can include such a building, but is not limited to a physical location.

A regional food hub is a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.(Barham et al. 2012:4)

To be effective, food hubs also act "as networks and intersections of grassroots, community-based organisations and individuals that work together to build increasingly socially just, economically robust and ecologically sound food systems that connect farmers with consumers as directly as possible" (Blay-Palmer et al., 2013:524).  As such, their networking and integration functions serve to address a key barrier identified by individual alternative food projects, that of disconnection and operating in silos. However, the coordination/networking function is often challenging to achieve because many under-resourced food projects struggle to participate in the very aggregating structures that might address the barrier (cf. Mount et al., 2013).

Such purposes and processes are substantially different from the dominant approach which makes them difficult to implement, sustain and evaluate (for an overview, see Nelson and Landman, 2020). Often effective in limited geographies and for relatively small but important numbers of people, the challenge is then to scale them up and out (Johnston and Baker, 2005; Friedmann, 2007). As with many other alternatives, they rely on a mix of market and non-market revenue streams, and sharing of resources is common to deal with funding shortfalls.

So, much is now understood about how to scale up and out these kinds of efforts. There have been some examples of programs that addressed these challenges. BC's Community Food Action Initiative (CFAI) started in 2005 and was evaluated in 2008. It was funded by the provincial government and delivered through the Provincial Heath Services Agency and the then 5 regional health authorities.  Designed around a local needs approach, the CFAI supported 155 community projects that involved action plans, community gardens, community kitchens, school programs and food policies. The projects differed in size and scope across regions, with CFAI funding ranging from $5000 to $35,000 per project. An additional $1 million was provided by other sources across all the projects. Participants reported that the program did address many of the community-based barriers, particularly building capacity and partnerships, and reported numerous successes. The program was not without difficulties and the evaluators also identified improvements that would make the program more effective (Van de Woerd et al., 2008; see also Seed et al., 2013; Policy Actors, Foundations):

  • Funding for new project start-up costs and also ongoing costs of established projects.
  • More time for staff to work with communities and groups to develop proposals.
  • More training for community members on running projects.

Kushnir and Crouthers (2022) highlight the overtly scaling up and out work of the Sustainable Neighbourhood Action Program (SNAP) of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA). Since 2010, it has helped 12 communities with sustainability plans that include food and peer mentoring. In this approach, neighbourhood projects are test cases for expansion to other neighbourhoods. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has recognized the potential of this approach and is now providing a SNAP grant to other Canadian municipalities and their partners. Unfortunately, this kind of scaling up and out process is not necessarily baked into program designs.

Federal funding has yet to emerge that supports these kinds of approaches. As discussed earlier, the 2019 federal budget outlined a Local Food Infrastructure fund of $50 million over 5 years that would include funding on a competitive application basis for community projects, some of which presumably can address food access and alternative approaches to food retailing. Given the scope of the problem and the country, $10 million a year is a very limited fund. It was augmented in April 2020 during the Covid emergency with the $100 million Food Security Emergency Fund. This program is directed more towards emergency food relief organizations. The 2021 federal budget proposes to add an additional $140 million in 20-21 for emergency relief.

In the first wave of funding from the Local Food Infrastructure Fund, it appears most of the money was for capital improvements (e.g., purchase of new refrigerated trucks, kitchen equipment, community gardens, equipment needed to prepare, store and distribute food, and the installation of solar panels and irrigation systems).  Although capital dollars are important, their effectiveness is curtailed if there are insufficient operating dollars for staff, training and program delivery (Kushnir and Crouthers, 2022; Policy Actors, Foundations). Program designs based on community needs and operating dollars are even more important when attempting to support food security organizations in racialized communities.

Essentially, then the Local Food Infrastructure Fund must be redesigned and increased funding particularly to support operating budgets, based on the knowledge accumulated the last 30 years on how to support community food projects.