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First there was The 100 Mile Diet, then the New Oxford American Dictionary declared locavore "word of the year," and dozens of new farmers' markets opened across Canada with annual sales topping $1-billion. Now the big food corporations are taking note.

The companies that dominate the food industry, from potato-chip makers to national supermarket chains, are trying to tap into the "buy local" zeitgeist with marketing efforts aimed at capturing this audience. Some foodies are crying foul, calling the big-box version of local nothing more than green-washing. Others are more hopeful and are asking what role these companies can have in a local food system.

This past summer, Hellmann's mayonnaise, owned by multinational Unilever, launched the website, which urges consumers to "commit to eat real food" in season. It also posted a Canadian-made video on YouTube highlighting the plight of the family farm in Canada and the rise in imported foods on our shelves. A female narrator, speaking in a portentous tone, explains how Canadians are losing the ability to feed themselves as farmland is paved over and imports of fresh produce rise.

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"Are cheap imports really worth it?" she asks. The video ends with the mayonnaise logo at the bottom right of the screen.

This summer, Loblaw aired commercials featuring five farmers in different provinces who grow food for the supermarket chain's "grown close to home" campaign. Loblaw executive chairman Galen Weston is shown with farmers in pastoral settings along with footage of fresh peaches and vegetable fields. In stores, the company has created displays reminiscent of farmers' markets with seasonal produce packed in baskets. The campaign is working: In 2008, its first season, produce sales increased by 12 per cent, says Mike Venton, senior vice-president of produce.

Corporations south of the border are interested in local, too. The U.S. potato-chip brand Frito Lay aired a series of television ads in which potato farmers talk about growing Lays's raw material on their family farm. Several other brands are also using the word local in their advertising.

It's no surprise that the local food scene is attracting this kind of attention. According to a study released this year by industry group Farmers' Markets Canada, not only do farmers' markets - a bellwether of the local food economy - generate $1.03-billion in sales annually, they are the second most popular place to buy groceries after big-box supermarkets for 62 per cent of shoppers surveyed.

That success has caused many in the local food movement to be skeptical about the motives behind the corporate interest, and the Internet is abuzz with accusations of "local-washing."

But rather than be critical, Wayne Roberts, a long-time proponent of local food and project co-ordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council, is intrigued. "I am interested that they are interested," he says of corporations plugging local foods. "I'm happy to see it, green-washing or not."

He interprets these strategies as an acknowledgment that today's global food system, and its long-distance supply chains, is about to undergo a massive change - what Mr. Roberts believes will be a transformation to a more localized food economy.

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Jennifer Story of the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving Ontario's farmland, is optimistic. "There are many examples of businesses who have taken up the rhetoric and used it to green-wash themselves and there are a number who have actually made substantial changes," she says. "We would love to see companies like Unilever take up the local food challenge and start contracting with greenbelt farmers."

At Loblaw, Mr. Venton says that changes have been made to the way they do business. Loblaw is buying from more Canadian farmers this year and has changed some of its supply lines. Rather than shipping everything through its distribution centres as is the norm in the industry, the company has increased the number of farmers who are delivering directly to stores - though this is largely in rural areas.

Lori Stahlbrand, president and founder of Local Food Plus, a non-profit organization helping to build a sustainable food system, says these are the first signs of things to come.

"Times are changing and big corporations need to be up to the challenge," she says, referring to climate change and peak oil as the impetus for change.

Her organization is already working with large companies to procure the food they serve in new ways.

"I think it is a response to consumer demand," she says. "New values are starting to enter into this."

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What's local anyway?

Are B.C. blueberries local in Ontario? How about Quebec apples in British Columbia?

In Canada, there are no regulations governing the word local. This can be confusing for consumers.

"The definition for us for local is anything we procure in Canada," says Mike Venton, senior vice-president of produce at Loblaw.

But not everyone agrees that in a country as vast as ours, nationalism should count as localism.

"National is not local," says Lori Stahlbrand of Local Food Plus. "We use the province because you can reliably get a significant amount of produce from the region."

So what's a consumer to do? Ms. Stahlbrand suggests buying food that is not only grown but processed near to where it is consumed.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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