The GTA's Food Processing Industry Gets Left Out by Existing Grants
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The GTA’s Food Processing Industry Gets Left Out by Existing Grants

Toronto needs federal and provincial policies that recognize the importance of the industry to the region.

Not that anyone would guess from Growing Forward 2 pony shows put on jointly by federal and provincial departments and ministries of agriculture and food, but food processing and manufacturing is already big business. It’s the second-biggest industrial earner in the country with revenue of $88 billion a year, and, despite the boom and bust turmoil of the last decade, it’s the country’s largest industrial employer (236,000 employees).

Food processing is also the top industry in the Greater Toronto Area, so that’s a lot of urban jobs and money tied to ministries that self-define as primarily rural and agricultural. Just as universities are almost always headed by scholars and hospitals by doctors, ministries of agriculture are invariably fronted by farmers, with a nod to the food industry as a tag-along “agri-food” in the minister’s title. As for nutrition, food-related chronic disease, food waste, or global warming, these are not even on the radar, let alone a focus, of agricultural ministers.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued his letter of instruction to incoming agriculture minister Lawrence MacAulay last fall, he directed the minister of ag and agri-food to come up with a food policy that would offer a wider lens on the food scene.

Judging from this summer’s sprinkling of $4.6 million in grant money to support entrepreneurial initiatives by Toronto area food companies, progress has been slow.

Comparing $4.6 million to the billions of dollars once showered on auto and aerospace giants puts the political importance attached to food-related jobs in perspective.

The relative neglect of food processing has persisted throughout this last decade as the volatile and intensely competitive sector lost and then regained some 25,000 jobs, according to two reports by the late David Sparling, formerly of the Ivey Business School at Western, one of the few voices to champion the strategic importance of the sector.

Overall, the Growing Forward 2 units of both governments have provided $44 million to the food industry since 2013, according to a federal government media release announcing this latest round.

Had the media arm of the agriculture departments released its detailed boilerplate on the grants to comedians, the public would already be smiling and informed.

Short of that preferred way of presenting the information, here is a rundown on how the money was spent and not spent, which anyone can verify from the detailed Excel chart provided in government media releases.

Some of the 110 grants are quite small. Mary Macleod’s Shortbread only got $125, and Ocean Food Company Limited, no doubt having trouble finding its ocean in the GTA, also only received $125.

But Mill Street Brewery, owned by Belgian beer behemoth Interbrew, got $131,478.22 (no one said the money wasn’t being doled out by penny-wise people) to automate its bottling line.

Mill Street got one of 14 grants to fund automation, which some might think runs contrary to the mandate of a government funding stream designed to protect jobs. There were 11 other grants to buy varying kinds of equipment, including one machine to bake pretzels.

The largest number of grants, 32, went to food safety training and equipment, often to meet the safety requirements of other countries—a tip-off that the ag ministries are locked into thinking in terms of export markets, not reclaiming domestic markets as local food advocates might prefer.

Canada suffers a $7 billion trade deficit in food each year, according to a 2014 report by the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute [PDF], at a time when some 60 per cent of foodstuffs grown in Canada are processed elsewhere and later imported back home.

There were 16 grants to help companies develop a plan—one to do a SWOT analysis, a common exercise for organizational retreats where no-one has an idea of what to do, one to determine possible efficiencies, surely a worthy project, and one to figure out how to increase profits by expanding its market. There were four grants to pay for employee coaching.

There is no apparent effort from government grants to help keep companies in touch with developing food trends, aside from two grants for marketing materials and one grant to help a company sell baby formula in China (sorry, but New Zealand has that locked up).
There were three grants to help companies explore or boost energy efficiency and two grants to reduce food waste, one of the hottest topics on the food scene.

There were three grants for companies aiming to foster nutrition by increasing sales of fruit and vegetable products or gluten-free products.

There were two projects to improve ability to serve multicultural markets—one for a Kosher line and one for a Halal line—this in one of the world’s most multicultural city regions that food security advocates hope will become a centre of “world foods” and “intercultural food.”

One company got several grants to boost its line of nutritious and tasty meals for nurseries, childcare centres, and schools.

There were no projects to purchase more fair trade foods, develop products and services for disadvantaged communities (seniors, people on low incomes, and so on), work with civil society organizations or public health departments, or boost their profile at farmer markets. To the best of my knowledge, no social enterprise or farmers’ market received a grant.

The Greater Toronto Area, as it now exists and as it strives to be, is not in these grants.

This is perhaps why Trudeau instructed his minister to develop a food policy, and work backwards from policy ambitions, as distinct from the approach being implemented by Growing Forward 2.

Wayne Roberts is a senior Canadian food security consultant and edits a free weekly newsletter on food and cities.