A leading global food securities expert calls Ontario's tabled Local Food Act a good first step in food — and job — security.

"This is a foundation stone that will be made more concrete in subsequent years, but right now it sounds pretty aspirational," said University of Guelph professor Evan Fraser. "This is a great piece of legislation that will be seen as a stepping stone.

Community groups and workers in the province's agriculture sector call the act a good first step.

If passed, the Liberal government says the Local Food Act would, through education, encourage the growth and development of markets for foods grown and made in Ontario. It would also provide funding for collaborative local food projects. The act would provide funding for experimentation and innovation in the agri-food industry.

"Government needs to be a partner and to put incentives in place," Premier Kathleen Wynne said.

Wynne said that, if passed, the act would help make more local food available in markets, schools, cafeterias, grocery stores and restaurants throughout the province.

No quotas, targets

However, Wynne said the act doesn't include quotas or legislated requirements for the amount of local food sold or bought by retailers or institutions, such as schools and hospitals.

Part of the act would, though, require Ontario ministries to buy local food.

"If public dollars are being spent, we want them spent on local produce," Wynne said.

Wayne Hanley, the national president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union, called the act "a good start in acknowledging how important the sector is to our economy and to our communities."

Wynne said the entire province needs to be aware "that if we buy more local food, if we buy from local communities, the demand goes up and the possibility of production goes up."

The act died last fall when former Premier Dalton McGuinty stepped down and prorogued the Legislature. Wynne, who is also the Minister of Agriculture, tabled the proposal Monday.

"It sends signals to the industry that government is behind local food," Fraser said of the act.

Demand for local food

"We’re very excited. We’ve had conversations locally about this act, and there’s some excitement and buzz in our area," said Michele Legere, co-ordinator of Food Matters.

Food Matters is an organization that works to educate people about secure, healthy and safe food in Windsor-Essex.

"People are demanding and wanting local food and local access," Legere said. "How do we get what’s grown at small- to mid-size farms into local markets where people can access it easily?"

Wynne, too, said people are asking for Ontario-grown food.

"I think the general public is ahead of us on this," she said.

According to the provincial government, Ontario is home to Canada’s largest food processing sector. The Ontario agri-food sector contributes more than $34 billion to the economy and employs more than 700,000 people, Wynne said.

Jobs, farms at stake

Legere said, if passed, the legislation could create new jobs.

She said Essex County, south of Windsor, has lost 152 farms in the past six years.

"That’s not to say we’ve lost the farmland. That means there are less people farming," she said.

Fraser said that over the last 20 years, Ontarians have been buying less local food.

"That hurts the economy, in a way," he said. "The family farm has struggled to find market for their product. It means our farmers have been forced out of all sorts of markets."

So, farmers have turned to cash crops like corn and soya beans.

"That’s had bad consequences in rural communities and communities have lost access to locally grown produce," Fraser said.

Wynne and Legere also said large grocery chains need to buy into the act if it's going to work.

"That’s always been the hard nut to crack; to get the larger chains to buy in," Legere said.