The Tories make the right call on the Ontario Food Terminal

OPINION: The government announced Monday that the sprawling 50-acre Ontario Food Terminal will stay put in south Etobicoke. Here’s why that was a smart move
By John Michael McGrath - Published on July 9, 2019
produce at the Ontario Food Terminal
The Ontario Food Terminal, located in south Etobicoke, matches food wholesalers with restaurants and grocery stores across the region. (Kevin Van Paassen/CP)

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The Ontario Food Terminal has been quietly contributing to the well-being of the GTA for decades, and many people have no idea it even exists. It may be large — the terminal, which matches food wholesalers with restaurants and grocery stores across the region, sprawls across more than 20 hectacres of warehouses and loading docks — but it can be easy to speed past on the QEW.

That’s hot land in a hot housing market, and any government might be tempted to sell it for a very pretty penny indeed. So it’s good news that the Progressive Conservatives have listened to the voice of caution on this file: on Monday, Ernie Hardeman, the province’s minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs, announced that the government will be leaving the food terminal where it is.

“It became quite evident with, shall we say, the opening shots of this review that there was a lot of support from all sides — wholesalers, producers ,and consumers — that things stay at the food terminal where it is,” Hardeman told TVO.org on Monday.

Although the government’s review of the terminal’s operations is ongoing, Hardeman added, it decided to make the announcement now because leaving the question open — will it stay or will it go — was creating more uncertainty both for businesses and for their employees. And Etobicoke-Lakeshore MPP Christine Hogarth, Hardeman said, made a convincing case for how vital the terminal was to the local community and how difficult it would be to move it elsewhere.

“As soon as you’ve got that kind of uncertainty, you’re not really open for business,” Hardeman said. “Who’s going to invest in growing their capabilities if they don’t have a good place to market it?”

It’s difficult to imagine any government building the terminal today. It’s run by a public agency (the Ontario Food Terminal Board), but it’s entirely self-financing, having long since paid off the debt incurred to buy the land and build the structure. Opened in 1954, it moved the main produce markets out of the cramped confines of downtown Toronto and gave Ontario farmers more power in a marketplace dominated by foreign competitors and large grocery chains.

In a 2005 paper, Carleton University doctoral student Malcolm G. Bird (now a professor at the University of Manitoba) argues that the food terminal should be seen as part of a broader postwar policy by the Tories, under then-premier George Drew, to build the Ontario economy with direct intervention from the government. And they weren’t kidding around: until the 1980s, provincial law gave the food terminal a legal monopoly on wholesale produce in Toronto and in Peel and York regions.

The Tories of 2019 are not looking to recreate the big-spending, big-government economic development plans of the 1940s and 50s. Hardeman said, for example, that he doesn’t see government stepping in in the case of livestock farmers looking for community-owned abattoirs, for example.

“The food terminal is just that — it’s just a place where everyone comes together,” Hardeman said. “There’s no processing of the food there.” Farmers may be unhappy with their current processing options, but, he said, “That’s not something the government would be well situated to provide.”

The government’s aims are more modest: Hardeman says that the operational review will focus on such things as how to improve the farmers’ market at the terminal.

Some developers had undoubtedly been salivating over the prospect of the food terminal’s lands going on the market, and they’ll now be disappointed. In another context, that might be understandable: Toronto is in the middle of a housing crisis, and the city sometimes goes to great lengths to protect derelict industrial lands that could otherwise be used for much-needed homes. In theory, it’s not absurd to suggest converting (publicly owned) land into new homes.

But we’re not talking about a Kodak plant that was left behind when the industry went digital or a factory whose work has been sent offshore. All we really need to say about the food terminal is that (a) people need food, (b) that’s probably not going to change any time soon, and (c) Toronto has lots of people, more of them every single year. The food terminal isn’t the only thing standing between the GTA and famine or anything — the big grocery chains have their own distribution systems — but it helps support smaller independent grocers and other customers around the region. A decision to sell could lead to homes for a few thousand more people, but it would also undermine the system that helps make the city run: the government would essentially be burning furniture to keep warm.

So sincere kudos to the Tories for listening to voices from both business and the local community — and  making the right choice.

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