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Stamp of approval: Local Food Plus is nailing down what counts, exactly, as sustainable food

Since its launch five years ago, Local Food Plus has created the world's first Certified Local Sustainable seal to encourage the production, distribution and sale of local food across the country. Writer Alexandra Shimo spoke to Lori Stahlbrand who co-founded the Toronto not-for-profit to find out what's next.  
Alexandra Shimo: How did you become involved in the local food movement?
While doing my Ph.D. at York University on eco-labeling in our food system, I realized that we needed a local and sustainable production system that went beyond organic. My university research became the subject of a book that I co-authored, Real Food for a Change: Bringing Nature, Joy and Justice to the Table which became a bestseller. We parlayed that experience into Local Food Plus, which launched in 2006.

What are some of your concerns with the term 'sustainable'?
Sustainable is an important concept but it doesn't have an independent set of criteria to validate it. So it's often used as a marketing term rather than designating something real. And yet, all the issues that make food sustainable—biodiversity, labour standards, animal welfare, growing production system, and energy—can be measured. And so we created a system that would measure whether local farmers were using practices that met these sustainability criteria. Consumers would know whether they were supporting such farmers through our Certified Local Sustainable seal.
Was it easy to create the Local and Sustainable certification seal?
Not really! We had to write sustainability standards—taking into consideration biodiversity, labour standards, animal welfare, growing production system, and energy—for every crop in Canada. And we had to identify farmers who were using sustainable practices and help others move into this category. We are also helping grow the distribution, production and consumption of Certified Local Sustainable food by helping establishing relationships and guaranteed markets.
How is 'Local Sustainable' different from organic? 
Most of the organic food on sale in Ontario isn't grown here but in California. This has little to do with our capacity or potential. Our farmers could supply these fruits and veggies, but because California and Florida invested early in things like post handling, we were muscled out of the market. We want to help local farmers grow and market sustainable produce. Supporting local farmers helps rural economies and creates jobs. And it cuts down on the fossil fuels and carbon emissions used in importing organic food from elsewhere.
Are you helping local farmers move towards organic?
Some local farmers want to shift to organic. But it's not possible for everyone. For example, it's difficult to grow organic apples in Ontario because of fungal pressures that create scabs. The discolouration is purely cosmetic and does not affect nutrition, but it means that consumers will not buy them. We help farmers move towards sustainable practices, such as integrated pest management, which includes reducing chemicals, switching to more eco-friendly pesticides and only spraying when there's a pest outbreak (scouting). By changing growing practices, our farmers can grow sustainable apples that are pretty darned close to organic. They are Certified Local Sustainable, which is better for the natural environment as we don't have to import from elsewhere.
How do you measure sustainable?
We have five criteria, including labour standards, animal welfare, growing production system, biodiversity and energy. In each of these categories, we've defined the best sustainable practices, and we reward those that use them on a points system. To be able to qualify for our program, farmers need 900 of a total possible 1,200 points
Who has embraced Local Sustainable in Ontario?
We have 100 partners, including municipalities, restaurants and retailers, such as Fiesta Farms, The Sweet PotatoJamie Kennedy KitchensCafé Belong and Vancouver Island's Sooke Harbour House.
A number of institutions are also committed to Local Food Plus? What does this involve?
We ask them to pledge that 10 per cent of their total food cost will be from Certified Local Sustainable and they will increase figure each year. Ideally, we'd like a five per cent annual increase, but we're still figuring whether this is feasible. Many institutions and universities Canada-wide have already made the pledge, including the City of Markham, the Municipality of Halton, McGill University, McMaster and the University of Winnipeg.
If individuals buy Local Sustainable certified food, how does it help?
If 10,000 people were to shift $10 per week from imported conventional to local sustainable food, then in one year, they will have offset the greenhouse gases of 1,000 cars, and pumped enough money into the economy to have created 100 jobs.
The City of Toronto was moving towards a buy local policy, but this recently came under attack. How will this affect you?
Well, we're already working with a number of other cities and municipalities, including Markham and Halton, so we think this is very short-sighted. In the long run, local sustainable promotes local jobs, creates green spaces around cities and reduces fossil fuel use. These also generate revenue or reduce costs.
Has your Certified Local Sustainable labelling and production system moved outside of Ontario?
Yes, the seal is now used across Canada. And we are working with farmers, retailers and distributors in many other provinces to grow this system nation-wide. We already have our hands full working in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. We'd like to move into Atlantic Canada, where we've had a lot of interest.
Does that mean that you plan on expanding worldwide?
Well, our Certified Local Sustainable model can be replicated anywhere. But we're just one small charity dependent on donations and foundation grants. Local Sustainable has taken off in Canada, and for now that keeps our hands full.
This interview was edited and condensed.

Third sidebar image by Cindy Brooks.
Alexandra Shimo is an author and journalist based on the Ossington strip. Her first book The Environment Equation was published in seven countries and received international acclaim in Forbes magazine and the Chicago Tribune. She is currently researching her second, based on her four-month stay on a northern First Nation's reserve, and freelance editing for Random House.
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