Food Innovation Symposium Touts Benefits of Going Local

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By Andrew Coppolino

GUELPH, Ont. — Trends, millennials, new food models, authenticity in marketing, food security and the brand of Canadian cuisine: the topics at the recent Local Food Innovation Symposium at the University of Guelph represented a broad range of ideas about “local” for foodservice operators to consider.

Gordon Food Service and the University of Guelph co-hosted the event, which saw participants take in “Trends, Tips & Motivations to Localize,” presentations from Ontario local-food leaders, academics and researchers. There were also displays of local ingredients and a panel of chefs discussing “good-food” innovations and best practices moderated by Anita Stewart, the University of Guelph Food Laureate.

The symposium delivered on its promise to encourage connections and discussion in support of efforts to build and sustain robust, resilient local-food systems across the industry.

Vertical farming is growing in Ontario and will, in the future, contribute to more local food — and more local food year round.

Gregg Curwin, CEO of GoodLeaf Farms in Nova Scotia, stated the need for new local-food models, citing food scarcity, growing populations, more chemicals required to grow food efficiently, a decline of food quality and consumer concern for good health and proper nutrition.

Vertical farming systems — including the 50,000-sq.-ft. facility currently planned for the Guelph area — “are here to stay,” Curwin said. “The health demand is powerful.” The systems are a “suite of technologies,” including L.E.D. lighting, mechatronics and robotics, seed genomics (with no spray and no G.M.O.’s), and a smorgasbord of data.

It’s a heavy capital investment, but one that means local food, which captures and re-deploys carbon at the same time it enhances phytochemical nutrition, maximizes yield, boosts food quality and safety and tastes good.

Food-and health-marketing specialist Isabelle Marquis said the term ‘local’ has a broad definition that allows for “creativity” for foodservice operators.

“What does the term mean?” she asked. It covers where food is grown (from zero to 100 km), how it is prepared and by whom and what ingredients it is made with. Despite the capacity of the definition, Marquis stressed “authenticity” must prevail and corporate values must reflect an understanding of “local,” values, she said, including supporting local organizations, reducing carbon footprint, peak freshness and flavour and being able to offer unique products.

“However, words and values don’t drive sales alone,” Marquis said, pointing to the need to pay attention to the “human factor” with both customers and staff.

Sobering comments came from professor Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute and Research Chair in Global Food Security at University of Guelph: local food has to be set within a context of global food security.

First, he cited calculations that the planet will need to produce 70 per cent more food than we do now to feed humanity by 2050. Second, climate change and “weird weather” will define foods and flavours in the future, while, finally, it remains a sad truth that while we grow a lot of food, we also waste a lot.

Fraser suggested the dialogue should not be “local-only,” especially in a cooler climate such as Canada, but a balance of local and global, using apples as an example.

Not surprisingly, demographics are on the move with consumers looking for both convenience and healthy choices, according to Asad Amin, vice-president, Marketing, for Ipsos Canada.

Amin, in discussing how local “fits in,” presented simple socio-economic factors — what he called “consumption factors” — that are driving food-consumer customers. Convenience in dining and food purchasing is paramount, but there are marked increases in “food exploration and experiences,” he said, adding, “these are increasingly important.”

Consumption factors range from the growing farm-to-table experience (“Canadians love Canadian products,” said Amin); the decline of meat protein and non-meat protein consumption in vegetarian and flexitarian diets; “mindful eating;” and serving millennials — 30 per cent of whom say local is critical to them when seeking food and restaurant experiences.

In an increasingly fragmented market, Amin pointed out that, among millennials, “YEMPs” — young educated millennial parents — are a new key target: this demographic seeks experiences that include fresh, local and organic food and they seek information about it through social media.