Bringing local farmers and food buyers together

Growing mesclun mix

As an unabashed advocate for local food and farming, I was thrilled to see that here in Guelph we have an officially recognized local food champion in our midst.

Leslie Carson, of St. Joseph’s Health Centre, was honoured in the 2011 Local Food Champions Report, part of a series of initiatives by the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation and the Greenbelt Fund to connect Ontario’s farmers and food producers with public institutions.

Schools, universities, hospitals, day-cares and other public sector facilities are large-scale buyers and consumers of food. This represents a significant market opportunity for Ontario farmers — but one that currently isn’t being filled to its potential.

Carson, manager of St. Joseph’s food and nutrition services, was one of several individuals featured in the report thanks to her efforts in using local food suppliers to help provide patients with three meals and two snacks on a daily budget of only $7.33 per person.

Instead of bringing in pre-made food, St. Joseph’s is now preparing 75 per cent of its meals onsite, including developing its own salads and hot dishes made with Ontario ingredients. The results have been excellent — the facility’s food service satisfaction rate has increased to 87 per cent.

The concept of increasing Ontario-grown food in our public sector institutions is an excellent one, but it’s not without its challenges on both the buyer and the seller side of the equation. Large scale public sector buyers often have very specific needs as to how they can purchase or receive food products.

For example, many have facilities that aren’t well equipped to handle bulk shipments of potatoes straight from the field, but could use those spuds if they’re already washed, sliced and portioned. They also prefer to source products from as few buyers as possible, which simplifies administration and helps reduce costs.

On the flip side, many farmers individually don’t produce enough crops to service large customers and don’t have the often costly on-farm facilities to value-add for the market place on a large scale. And many distributors, although they may buy local food products, are only now starting to identify and market them specifically to their customers.

That’s where the foundation saw a need. Their goal is to provide new opportunities for farmers and champion the use of locally grown food in these settings. This will boost positive economic and environmental spinoff effects and create sustainable change in our food system, according to foundation president Burkhard Mausberg, whom I’ve heard speak very passionately on this subject several times.

The foundation has a granting program to help farmers, distributors and institutions upgrade facilities, equipment and processes to make it easier to use more local food products. They’re also in the process of launching a new website this fall that Mausberg likes to call a “dating service for farmers and buyers.” Ontariofresh.ca is a business to business website that will help link farmers with public institutions and buyers by letting them register their profiles and products online.

To me, these are all exciting developments and what’s even more exciting is that they’re now spreading beyond just the Greenbelt area to encompass other parts of the province as well. We produce a tremendous array of food in Ontario — over 100 different fruit and vegetable crops alone — and it’s encouraging to see there are efforts underway to make them more accessible.

The foundation is currently accepting nominations for its next Ontario’s Local Food Champions report, which recognizes the efforts of individuals and businesses who are promoters of local food.

There are a lot of folks in Guelph and Wellington County who are doing some fantastic things to advance local food and farming. From my perspective, it would be great to see more of them recognized as local food champions – their efforts are an integral part of growing and strengthening our local economy and food networks.

This article was first printed in the Guelph Mercury on July 28, 2011.

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