Local food made easy

New food service marketing program expands markets for Ontario foods

If you build it, they will come.

That’s the thinking behind a new marketing program being used by Gordon Food Service (GFS), Ontario’s largest family-owned food service distributor – expanding and promoting their offering of Ontario food products by making it easy for their customers to identify and buy local food.

Earlier this year, the company was the recipient of a grant from the Broader Public Sector Investment Fund, a partnership between the Greenbelt Fund and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) that aims to increase the amount of Ontario foods purchased through municipal, school, university and hospital food service settings.

“We’ve been buying local foods for several years but weren’t necessarily marketing local to our customers,” says Cindy Palmer, a member of Gordon Food Service’s local food team. “The push to promote local is not just at the grocery store, it’s also filtering down to the food service community. Consumers are demanding to know where their food comes from and are encouraging purchase of local product by operators in the broader public sector as well.”

Through the grant, GFS established a dedicated local food staff team and put together a list of all the products it buys from local sources. The outcome was a whopping 600 products spanning produce, dairy, meat and grocery items, a number Cindy admits shocked the GFS team. They then turned to Foodland Ontario for advice on how to best define the term “local” and are now working to clearly identify local products in all of their systems.

“For us, the definition of local is the same as the provincial government’s: grown and processed or raised, slaughtered and processed in Ontario,” she explains. “Many health care and educational institutions have a mandate to increase their purchases of local products. By tagging these items in our ordering system, we’re making it easy for our customers and sales reps to find them, which will help with reporting as well.”

Now they’re taking it a step further by providing marketing materials to their customers to help them promote the fact that they’re selling local food. This includes profiles of farmers that can easily be integrated into menus, features, tent cards and signage, which customers have been embracing.

Garry Proven of Country Herbs is one of those farmers, supplying GFS with 18 varieties of fresh herbs grown on his 75 acre farm just south of Tillsonburg. The local food movement and the growing interest of chefs have been key in growing his business.

“People are asking for local more and we’ve been growing steadily with GFS right from the start,” he says. “One of the reasons GFS came to us was that we were local and they were looking for a higher quality product. They did a farm tour and were probably the first company to ever come out here to see what we’re doing. “

He used to supply all the large chain stores but has moved to focusing on building local markets, which for him also include Longo’s, Whole Foods and various Toronto specialty shops. He’s just recently launched a new line of mini veggies that includes squash, zucchini, beets and carrots and is now tagging his products with an “Ontario-grown” badge.

“It has been challenging but GFS is one of those exceptional companies. We wanted to find someone interested in quality and showing some loyalty and GFS is that for us,” he says. “Farming can be challenging, but it is so much nicer if you can go to work knowing there are people thinking about you and your business.”

GFS serves over 500 customers in Ontario’s broader public sector, including the University of Waterloo (UW). The institution buys approximately $7.5 million in food annually to feed its 30,000, faculty, and staff on campus. GFS is one of its main suppliers.

“We’ve slowly started to address our buy local program and we’re working with GFS and other suppliers to help identify what produce is grown in Ontario,” says Lee Elkas, Director of Food Services. “Our chefs do the buying and this helps them make decisions on buying local.”

For UW, the need is to satisfy student demand for healthy food options on campus. Lee is working with suppliers to identify and improve the percentage of locally grown food in the UW’s offering. The ultimate goal is to develop protocols and policies for his department that will see local buying increase by four to five per cent next year. In September, the university will start providing more information through signage in its cafeterias on what foods are local, coupled with nutritional information.

“We generally hear really good comments. The students believe in buy local and sustainability,” he says, adding he meets monthly with a food advisory board that includes students. “This helps us get a good sense that students are looking for this sort of thing and we present all of our initiatives through that board to solicit feedback.”

For Gordon Food Service, its local food program has grown to approximately 840 items and counting since receiving its grant. By 2013, the company expects to well exceed its target of increasing its local food purchases by 20 per cent.

“We’re a large distributor with a large, growing market and we can help sell farmers sell their products,” says Cindy,  but cautioning that any farmers looking to get their products to market through GFS should have recognized food safety and traceability programs at the farm and facility level.

“Without this grant, we wouldn’t have been able to put this much effort into local food and advance it this quickly,” she adds. “It’s great we have help from the Greenbelt Fund and our partners at OMAFRA and Foodland who are great advisors. It makes it easier to focus when you have the support behind you.”

Note: this article was originally published in the Ontario Farmer, July 5, 2011

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