The landscape has shifted in a few short years in terms of the effort institutions are making to buy local food. For instance, the Corporation of the City of Thunder Bay has become an advocate for locally produced foods, having endorsed the Thunder Bay Food Charter (2008), the Community Environmental Action Plan (2008), and the Thunder Bay and Area Food Strategy (2014). The City has adopted a Sustainable Ethical Environmental Purchasing Policy (2011) and was awarded two Greenbelt Fund grants to help shift purchasing policies towards more local food.
Under the first Greenbelt grant, the City increased purchasing of local food by 2% in one year. A main takeaway from this project was that it challenged the assumption that public sector institutions cannot buy local food. Up until that point, it was generally believed that the volumes, consistent supply, and health and safety requirements could not be met by producers from the area. Under the second Greenbelt Fund project, the City increased purchasing of local food by 10% in one year for its three Homes for the Aged and four daycares.
Together these two projects provided opportunity for convening a range of food system interests–producers, buyers, distributors, institutional administrators and front-line staff–on the topic of how to bring more locally-sourced food to long-term care and child care facilities. It also helped build stakeholder enthusiasm and confidence in the value of giving priority to locally-sourced food, where possible.
While demand for local food among institutional buyers is growing, there is a need to make buying local food easier for managers, chefs, and storekeepers. One of the realities of the modern food system is that many institutions have outsourced management of food services to external private companies. These companies have their own distribution networks that source from outside Ontario, specifically the Winnipeg area. Local food content is often difficult to identify through mainline distributors until after the product is delivered. Smaller institutions like daycares and schools also have challenges around sourcing local food since they require such low volumes. 10 Since many growers are doing their own distribution, it can be hard for small institutions to make the case for deliveries.
Increasingly, alternative local distribution channels are developing, such as online ordering platforms, and some local distributors are making connections with growers from the area. It is likely that as the demand for local food increases, local food distribution channels will become more developed, convenient and efficient, and available to institutions of all sizes.
Another challenge institutions face when it comes to purchasing local food is that the supply of local food is limited by the shorter growing season and smaller scale production in the immediate area. In other words, some institutions require such large volumes that they cannot yet substitute their purchases entirely with food from the area. Some are, however, still making efforts to buy some northwestern Ontario and Ontario foods. There is an opportunity to maximize the use of certain crops (e.g. root vegetables, cabbage, onions) and add storage, processing, and mechanization on farms that would help growers reach greater volumes and at a more competitive price point. Another option could be for farmers not producing enough on an individual basis to fill orders collectively.
Procurement stakeholders want product to be aggregated and pre-processed whenever possible before it arrives at their door in one convenient delivery. Making menu substitutions is difficult when labour costs go up as raw food preparation takes more time. Having the option of buying pre-processed local foods (washed, chopped, frozen, and bagged) appears to be a necessary component of a successful local food system. Integrating local food into institutional menus would also occur sooner if food service staff were trained in how to source and prepare locally-sourced foods and make menu substitutions using food from the area. 11
Ideally, as the public sector moves towards buying from closer to home, they will also begin tracking their purchases more closely. At the moment, it is clear that the number of institutions buying from the Thunder Bay area, northwestern Ontario, and Ontario is increasing, yet there is very little information on the volumes or dollars purchased. Having this information will be key in measuring progress over the long term.
How Much Local Food Is Being Bought?
There is little by way of data tracking volumes of local food purchased by public sector institutions, restaurants, and caterers. Generally this information is not requested by institutions. There are also big differences in how much local food is bought. For instance, some institutions will purchase local food a couple times a year for special events while others use local food weekly. The same is true for restaurants and caterers.