Local food has become mainstream, full stop,” declares Burkhard Mausberg, CEO of Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, a Toronto-based non-profit grant-making organization and The Greenbelt Fund, a Toronto-based non-profit organization that “supports and enhances the viability, integrity and sustainability of agriculture in Ontario and Ontario’s Greenbelt.” No longer trumpeted exclusively by the fedora-wearing farmers’ market stereotype, a local mindset is transforming the food scene in Ontario.
And, research shows buying local is top of mind for Ontarians. In a study conducted last year by Toronto’s Environics Research Group, 92 per cent of respondents said local food tastes better.
So, Mausberg drew more attention to the growing movement by hosting an Ontario Pavilion at the CRFA Show last month. Organized by The Greenbelt Fund, it featured 50 suppliers, growers, distillers and foodies from Ontario who showcased their products and built their network. “Up until last year, there wasn’t an Ontario Pavilion, and now, by year two, we have the largest one in the show,” boasts Mausberg.
The pavilion was home to an entourage of local-food champions and celebrity chefs, such as Joshna Maharaj, food advocate and executive chef at Ryerson University, who discussed the challenges and opportunities of increasing the local supply in the foodservice industry and Anna Olson, a Food Network personality who demonstrated locally grown recipes. “[It’s focusing on] the idea that we can enjoy cuisine from all over the world and demonstrate how to use Ontario local ingredients,” adds Mausberg, praising Olson’s common-sense approach to cooking. “She doesn’t say ‘100-mile diet only.’ Bananas have a role, orange juice has a role, and she probably wouldn’t give up chocolate,” he adds.
Inside the Ontario Pavilion, attendees learned about a research project aimed at growing international crops on Ontario soil. Dr. Michael Brownbridge, research director at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Vineland, Ont., explained how the World Crops Initiative will provide Ontario producers with a profitable alternative to conventional crops. Now, vegetables from South and East Asia, West Africa, Latin America and even the Caribbean can be grown by Ontario producers. So, chefs eager to cater to a culturally diverse clientele can create dishes using locally grown okra, Chinese hot red peppers, Thai hot chili peppers, yard long beans, bottle gourd, daikon radish, long purple eggplant, Indian round eggplant and Jamaican callaloo. Other good news for the growth of the local-food movement is the increase in farmers’ markets, especially in Ontario’s Greenbelt, which comprises 1.8-million acres of protected land. “The farmers’ markets in the Greenbelt area have doubled in the last five years,” says Mausberg. “Our markets have grown, on average, annually by eight per cent.”
The proliferation of farmers’ markets is also having a positive effect on the surrounding community. “For every dollar someone spends at a farmers’ market, they typically spend $3 to $4 in surrounding businesses. They may go to a coffee shop, they may go to bakery, or they buy a lottery ticket. There’s now strong evidence that farmers’ markets aren’t just simply isolated areas for purchasing individual food products, but they’re community builders,” adds Mausberg.
But, many suppliers still need to deal with the distribution and seasonality issues that come with selling local food. “We grow carrots, onions, beets, potatoes, and we are trying to get our produce to local restaurants and suppliers, distributors, schools and in the hands of more local companies,” says Quinton Woods, sales and operations manager at Gwillimdale Farms in Bradford, Ont. “We’re looking for that next step, which is to find a distributor to take our product to the masses.”
Distributors such as Paul Sawtell, co-founder of the Toronto-based 100km Foods, which counts Toronto’s Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants and The Fairmont Royal York among its clients, says his company has expanded its reach from mainly fruits and vegetables to dairy products in recent years. But, the short growing season is still an ongoing struggle for chefs who want good, local produce. “It forces our clients to be creative and use products to their full potential,” Sawtell says.
Price is also a point of contention, which many suppliers hope to squash by emphasizing the value and superior taste of local product. “People often generalize that local food is more expensive,” says Sawtell. “Ontario garlic might be substantially more expensive on paper, but you’re using a quarter of the amount, because it’s that much more flavourful.” While more Ontario-based restaurant groups are expanding their supply chain to use more locally grown foods, Mausberg says there’s a lot of opportunity in the QSR segment. “I look at Tim Hortons — most Canadians love Timmies. They wrap themselves in the Canadian flag. I would ask them, where do you get your lettuce from? Where do you get your tomatoes for your sandwiches?” implores Mausberg. “I would hate to find out if any of those chains buy their product [outside] Canada.”
The bottom line: “Big corporations are moving towards recognizing that these are consumer-driven trends; they are not going away,” sums up Sawtell.