Help arrives to strengthen local food supply

Pictured is the brand new building for the Antigonish Farmer’s Market on James Street in Antigonish. Construction started in October and was scheduled to conclude in May, but due to COVID-19, that was extended to August 1.

The food supply chain was tested earlier this year during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, but recent developments might help strengthen that link to local communities.

Last month the federal government announced a non-repayable Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) investment of $556,935 in the Pan Cape Breton Food Hub Co-operative Limited.

The funding will expand the organization’s services and product lines, including the upgrade of a certified food processing, storage and distributing facility in Bras d’Or.

Alicia Lake, executive director of the Cape Breton Food Hub, said the processing facility will change the local food landscape in Cape Breton by creating opportunities, increasing access to local foods, and incubating food businesses.

Lake said with the facility, producers will be able to produce more food and have their products sold to larger buyers, or exported.

Under their plan, local farm produce will be processed, frozen and stored at the new facility. New products and meal kits will also be developed in a commercial kitchen, which will function as an innovation centre for business, product development and training. This will allow the Cape Breton Food Hub to operate year-round, extend the season for fresh produce and expand the type of foods producers can offer, like meal kits. Lake said the food hub has hired a dietician to design the meal kit recipes.

On July 30, the Province of Nova Scotia, through Invest Nova Scotia announced $500,000 toward this project.

The federal funding will also support a two-year pilot program to analyze the impact of season-extension equipment on farm growth and productivity. Under the project, high tunnels will be used to grow vegetables on five Cape Breton farms. Offering protection form cold temperatures, snow and wind, farmers will be able to start growing earlier and continue growing later.

Formed in 2015, the Cape Breton Food Hub is a multi-stakeholder, non-profit co-operative that distributes local food across Cape Breton Island and promotes consumer awareness, as well as educational activities related to the local food sector. In 2019, the Cape Breton Food Hub had 280 consumer members, more than 40 producer members and 50 volunteers engaged throughout the year.

Lake told The Reporter that the first phase of the facility, which they expect will be complete by late fall, will involve the construction of the commercial kitchen and building storage capacity. The next phase, vegetable processing, will start immediately after with plans to be ready by the spring.

On the mainland, representatives with the Antigonish Farmer’s Market said their vendors are extremely relieved to finally move-in to their brand new building, following a three-month delay due to COVID-19. The building’s operations manager, Lee Daponte, said construction, which began in October 2019, was slated to conclude with the year-round building being fully operational on May 2, however, they weren’t able to open until August 1.

Despite the delay, Daponte explained they still are unable to run at full capacity – with only half of their approximately 90 vendors being allowed to set up – following provincial health restrictions. But Daponte said that’s not deterring residents from coming out and supporting their local vendors.

Not surprisingly, the Antigonish Farmer’s Market saw this same support while they were staring the pandemic straight in the face, and needed to change their approach – moving their services on-line.

On the first day of pick-ups on May 2, using their new method, more than 170 orders were fulfilled, through only 30 vendors.

Last week, the farmers market received another boost when Antigonish MLA Randy Delorey announced that the provincial government will be contributing $150,000 to the Antigonish Farmers’ Market Association for the installation of solar panels at the new Antigonish Farmers’ Mutual Agricultural Centre.

Having opened August 1, the farmers market allows for 80 indoor and 10 outside vendors. The solar panels will help cover most electricity costs for the new facility on an ongoing basis to reduce operational costs.

Mike Ward, secretary for the Antigonish Farmers’ Market Association, said the addition of a Solar Photovoltaic system will help to ensure the long-term financial and environmental sustainability of the new centre because it will help to cover most of the electrical, heating and operational costs, and mitigate the risk of rising energy costs.

With a mandate to support Nova Scotia’s agricultural growers and producers, as well as local crafts people and artisans, by providing a venue that will help promote their products and give exposure for their business growth, the Antigonish Farmers’ Market is currently the third largest farmers’ market in Nova Scotia.

The Antigonish Farmers’ Market is the community hub for healthy eating, home-grown food and locally produced arts and crafts. Since its beginnings in 1995, the market has become more popular with each year and now attracts over 1,000 visitors on any given Saturday during the height of the season, offers a mini-market Wednesday evenings, and also offers on-line shopping with an easy and organized pick-up system.

While both organizations have their differences, they remain vital links in the local food chain that give consumers local food choices and provide local farmers and producers with facilities from which to sell their products.

And their importance at this time in history cannot be overemphasized. The fact is that, so far, the Strait area has largely weathered the COVID-19 storm that has ravaged so many other countries and jurisdictions, but this storm is not over, and there are many challenges ahead.

If second or third waves are equal or greater than what was experienced last spring, then these food sources will prove essential.

With these new facilities, both groups are now in a far better position to assume this mantle of leadership that will help keep residents and communities nourished.