Institutional procurement of local food in this area has been driven by the efforts of the Corporation of the City of Thunder Bay. Over the past 15 years the City 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 + Area Food Strategy (2014). The City has adopted a Sustainable Ethical Environmental Purchasing Policy (2011) and was awarded two Greenbelt Fund grants in 2012 and 2013 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.
Today, the City of Thunder Bay operates one long-term-care home and four daycares, all of which continue to use local products on their menus. Pioneer Ridge Long-term Care Home now spends 30% of its raw food budget on local foods, injecting an additional $300,000 into the local economy every year. 16
In 2015, five health-care facilities reported procuring local food. Today, Pioneer Ridge is the only large institution (including post-secondary institutions) in the area maintaining a commitment to local food targets. Some of this can be attributed to the disruptive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused some buyers to simplify, but in other cases these initiatives have failed due to changes in personnel and a lack of the policy direction and operational processes which have made local food a permanent part of Pioneer Ridge’s food service.
One of the realities of the modern food system is that many institutions have outsourced management of food services to foodservice corporations. These companies have their own distribution networks that source primarily from outside Ontario. 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. 17 Since many growers are doing their own distribution, it can be hard for small institutions to make the case for deliveries.
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. Some institutions require such large volumes that they cannot substitute their purchases entirely with food from the area, adding a layer of complexity to their meal planning.
To address this, Pioneer Ridge Long-term Care Home has developed processes around menu planning and ordering which incorporate local products on a year-round as well as on a seasonal basis, making their use both straightforward and consistent.
This challenge could also be addressed from the supplier side with the addition of 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 producers and harvesters 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 (e.g., 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. 18
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 appears that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a limiting effect on the local food ambitions of Thunder Bay’s institutions, and 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 is anecdotal information, however, about a growing number of children’s daycare centres and community organizations like Roots Community Food Centre and the Good Food Box which are making concerted, consistent efforts to purchase from local producers whenever possible.