Not just for chefs anymore, larger foodservice operations can go local, too.
Buying a bushel of beans from a local farmer may make you feel good and delight your guests, but imagine the impact on local agriculture — and eating habits — if your friendly farmer and his friends could sell truckloads of fresh produce to local high schools, colleges, nursing homes and hospitals.
Through a growing network of passionate growers and distributors, doors to these newmarkets are suddenly swinging open for small Ontario growers. One of the biggest challenges is convincing institutions local food isn’t wildly more expensive than imports, says Paul Knechtel, president of 100 Mile Market Inc., in Kitchener, Ont., which picks up and stributes locally grown produce, meat, fish, dairy and processed products from 160 local farmers to foodservice customers large and small.
“There may be attributes attached, like pesticide-free, growth-hormone-free or GMOfree, which command a better price,”Knechtel says. “Chefs have told me fresh local food is
worth the small premium because the quality is better and there’s less shrinkage.”
The two-year-old company recently bought two refrigerated trucks, for a total of five, and hired two sales people with the help of a $275,000 Broader Public Sector Investment
Fund grant from the Greenbelt Fund and Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture.
The 100 Mile company already supplies local food to cafeterias in the Halton region municipal office,which feed 1,500 high schools and Conestoga College, where chef instructors
insist students learn to buy local.
SAFETY IN NUMBERS
An hour north of Toronto, in Bradford, Ont., Larry Cohn, president of Cohn Farms, is installing the latest European equipment to offer customers the highest degree of food
safety and efficiency in the packing and processing of his 700 acres of root crops.
With the help of a $350,000 Greenbelt Fund grant over two years and Local Food Plus (LFP), a Toronto-based non-profit that conducts farm audits to ensure a producer is local and sustainable, he’s put together a project to package fresh produce from small, LFP-certified growers to attract large-volume customers.
“Smaller growers weren’t able to do this before,” says Cohn.“They don’t have themoney to spend on expensive packing equipment, and they don’t have the food-safety levels in
place, which costs the same whether you’re big or small.”
The second-generation grower now has commitments from nine farms this season, offering produce frombroccoli to celery, both fresh and fresh-cut. Within two years, he’d like to have 20 to 30 small growers on board.
FRUIT FOR ALL
After nearly a century growing and distributing tender fruit in Ontario’s fertile Niagara Peninsula, the 120 growers in the Vineland Growers Co-operative Ltd., want to sell
more of their world-famous peaches, plums and nectarines, in addition to new organic peaches, to the foodservice industry.Currently, about 95 per cent of the co-op’s more than
$20-million worth of fruit goes to retail chains every summer.
Vineland president Michael Ecker kept hearing chefs complain they couldn’t get local food for their restaurants and was motivated to explore an untappedmarket.The co-op has
teamed up with Gordon Food Service, which also distributes produce from Cohn Farms. The broadline distributor recently launched a local procurement team and offers an order
sheet of locally grown ingredients.
“We’re excited, and we’re hoping GFS will get our fruit in front of more customers and help us increase sales,”Ecker says.“The sky’s the limit. As we increase our customer base, we’ll increase the number of trees in the ground.”
BABY CARROT STEPS
If you’d like to add more local food to the menu, start small, advises Paul Knechtel, president of 100 Mile Foods, a Kitchener, Ont., foodservice distributor. He advises public sector customers begin by putting five per cent of purchases into locally gr own food. Once distributors are in place — you may need three to a dozen carrot suppliers, for example — then shoot for 10-per-cent local, and, eventually, 25 per cent. “One of our challenges is to make sure that as demand ramps up, the supply is there,” Knechtel says. However, institutions that already have contracts with third-party distributors aren’t free to go out and source their own local food, he adds. “There are clauses that will render that agreement null and void.” When contracts come up for renewal, however, he suggests making a percentage of local food a provision in any new agreement.