The recent Ontario Budget included cuts to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) budget. A drop of 3%, from $943 million last year to $916 million for 2016, includes the elimination of the Local Food Fund. This was a three-year initiative, with funding of up to $10 million per year, designed to support the agri-food industry in the province.
All intakes for the Local Food Fund are now completed and applications are no longer being accepted.
The cuts are part of the government’s plan to merge the Rural Economic Development Fund [RED] with the Jobs and Prosperity Fund which, according to government sources, will result in a more efficient administration of programs. The merger was a surprise, given that the RED program had only been relaunched last October. OMAFRA Minister, Jeff Leal, noted in January of this year that “Since 2013, the renewed Rural Economic Development program has invested more than $30 million in 200 approved projects to support a stronger rural Ontario, generating more than $161 million in local economic activity and resulting in the creation or retention of over 3,000 jobs”.
In a letter to Premier Wynne on January 11, he praised the effectiveness of the Local Food Fund in promoting innovative local food projects: “My ministry has been working to promote, encourage and invest in innovative local food projects including: Committing more than $22 million towards 163 Local Food Fund projects; releasing the first Local Food Report and establishing aspirational local food goals for food literacy under the Local Food Act; and announcing last October, that Ontario is providing $6 million over three years to increase sales of local food by making it more widely available and building awareness of the variety of food grown and produced in Ontario”.
The ending of the Local Food Fund has caused great concern in the agricultural sector, especially as the Jobs and Prosperity Fund [JPF] covers more than rural areas, and it is feared that sharing the funds available with urban area projects will result in an effective decline in funding for local food initiatives in rural and small-town Ontario. In addition, the JPF is only available to the private sector, and it is believed that funds from that source will not be accessible to farmers, municipalities and other groups who did qualify under RED.
Government spokespersons have pointed out that funding that used to go through the Local Food Fund will now be redirected through other programs, such as Growing Forward 3 and the Greenbelt Fund. It is too early to say what the long-term effect of the cancellation of the Local Food Fund may be. The cancellation was sudden and unexpected, and it will be some time before the reallocation of funds through other programs becomes clear.