As food and gas prices continue to rise and supply chains are threatened by the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and political instability, food self-sufficiency has become a growing concern for municipalities in the region.
The city of Cowansville and the surrounding municipalities of West Bolton, Brigham, Farnham, Frelighsburg, Brome Lake, Notre-Dame-de-Stanbridge and Saint-Ignace-de-Stanbridge recently received a grant of $33,500 from the Quebec agriculture ministry to support the development of a program that would allow them to “understand the interaction of local food systems in order to better coordinate actions [that] contribute to increased food autonomy,” according to a statement from the ministry.
Alexandre Charron, the environmental advisor at the City of Cowansville, will co-ordinate the project. He says the eight municipalities will work with the Centre de développement local (CLD) de Brome-Missisquoi to develop a food autonomy action plan.
“Food systems are complicated, from production all the way through to waste management,” he says. “We would love to be able to have the population and local businesses profit more from locally produced products.”
“The current [COVID-19] crisis has shown that we are all vulnerable [to interruptions in the food supply chain],” he adds. “As it is now, we’re in a good position to change things and develop a food system that is more sustainable and more local. It’s an issue that’s top of mind for a lot of people, in both large and small communities. We want to involve people from as many different spheres as we can, including elected officials from all the municipalities, food producers and distributors. We want to survey agricultural producers and people involved in waste management, as well as the general population. We want to get as much information as we can, and then build an action plan.”
Charron says the project was inspired by similar initiatives in the Saguenay, in the Gaspé region and in Bromont. Each municipality is expected to develop its own standalone action plan, and to contribute to the development of a regional plan. Charron hopes that the project will build connections between local agricultural businesses and give each municipality a list of concrete actions to take to improve food security.
Steven Neil is the mayor of Brigham. He hopes the new project will encourage area residents to explore and buy local products. “The idea of ‘eating local’ has been around for years, but it’s always been easier to go to IGA,” he says. “Obviously, the COVID crisis was the catalyst for everything. People panicked when they saw the empty shelves. Obviously, we were never in a position where we were about to starve, but in this area, when the [global] supply chain was affected by COVID, people knew they could go down the road and find a local fruit producer and a local egg producer.”
He says customers also discovered the other advantages of buying locally. “If you buy local, you’re helping your neighbour, and you’re not wondering how many thousands of miles your food travelled or what the working conditions are like for the people who harvested it.”
As a first step in its action plan, Brigham is developing an inventory of local food producers. “We have maple producers and garlic producers and wine producers and people who grow other vegetables for sale, even essential oil and soap producers,” says Neil. “This process helps us see what we have to offer. We’re each looking out for our own municipality, but we’re better as a group.”