… a report by Phil Mount from Bring Food Home 2015, November 19-22 in Sudbury
In late November, I travelled to Sudbury, Ontario for Sustain Ontario‘s biannual sustainable food systems conference. This conference brings together actors from across the Ontario food system, representing diverse voices including farmers and consumers, institutions and policy-makers, food networking organizations and the odd academic. The conference kicked off with a reception at the Clarion Hotel, which quickly moved to the Clarion’s Hardrock 42 Gastro-pub. With 20 taps dedicated to Beau’s Organic beer (and an equal amount from local and northern micro-breweries), some conference delegates quickly concluded that local beer had become the gateway drug to local food.
Bring Food Home: Digging Deeper started in earnest the next day, with regional tours of Sudbury and Manitoulin food venues, and all-day farmer training at the conference venue, along with assorted other sessions. Morning highlights included an open and frank conversation with Dr. Gwen Zellen (from Chicken Farmers of Ontario) and Maureen Strickland, a farmer from Manitoulin who has applied to raise 600 chickens under the new Artisanal Chicken program. We heard the good news that—while the initial call for applications for this new program took place under tight time constraints (1 month)—producers who wish to submit for the second year intake will have much more time to prepare and consult with CFO.
In the afternoon, I took part in Food Hubs for a Shifting Regional Food Economy, along with Kathy Nyquist, Peggy Baillie (ED of Eat Local Sudbury), Afua Asantewaa (Coordinator of FoodShare’s Mobile and Good Food Market), Joan Brady and Sally Miller (both with Local Organic Food Co-operatives Network). This series of presentations —followed by a workshop— covered some useful territory about where we’re at with food hubs in Ontario, and Illinois, but perhaps left too little time for the serious and frank and open and honest and necessary group conversations that tap into the knowledge in the room and benefit Sustain Ontario members. We learned that Eat Local Sudbury was pursuing Group GAP certification of aggregation points as well as farmers—which is an exciting new development that would simplify the process of making farmers’ products market-ready for institutional purchasing contracts. Friday’s farmer training workshops were capped off with the Crop Up North launch party.
On Saturday the conversation continued with Wholesaling and Diverse Marketing for Local Food Systems—where Sally Miller (with Local Organic Food Co-operatives Network) and Glenn Valliere (Ontario Natural Food Co-op’s Director of Purchasing) took a serious look at costing and margins when scaling up from direct marketing to wholesale (for producers), and aggregating for wholesale (for distributors and food hubs). Big lessons included knowing your precise costs for each product—particularly those hidden costs often not accounted for, or embedded in direct sales; spread your relationships to achieve the same kind of diversity with purchasers that you strive for in products; and work together so that producers, buyers and customers have a better understanding of each others’ needs and constraints.
Other highlights included Clare Wagner of Hamilton’s Neighbour to Neighbour Centre and Kendal Donahue from the Thunder Bay Food Strategy sharing lessons on food procurement and reshaping urban spaces; and the Feast of Local Flavours at College Boreal, where local chefs and trainees prepared spectacular bite-sized feasts from local farm products.
Sunday morning capped off the conference with an interesting ‘fish bowl’ conversation facilitated by Hayley Lapalme— From Systems to Strategy in Institutional Procurement: Reflecting on Past Successes and Designing for the Future. With Kathy Berger from Health Sciences North and yours truly in the middle of the fish bowl, joined by others from the surrounding circles of chairs, we had an engaging conversation about the barriers and possible solutions to increasing institutional procurement, the perceptions of provincial versus federal slaughter regulations, food safety, and growing food on site at public institutions.
We also had some interesting epiphanies about ‘efficiencies of scale’: while large-scale food service distributors find efficiencies that allow them to be profitable, those efficiencies are to a great extent determined by the constraints within which they operate! Smaller scale distributors—with a focus on alternative markets—or food hubs may not face the same constraints, and be able to find ‘efficiencies’ that actually work with farmers to encourage local aggregation. For example, Group GAP certification for the hub could encompass only that portion of their farm suppliers with appropriate scale. On the institutional side, one of the biggest barriers for local food initiatives is buy-in from upper administration. The most useful solution is to parse the language that those administrators use to justify their strategic direction, and find a way to frame local producer engagement as assisting with this strategy, and meeting the mission of your institution.
As always, Bring Food Home provided an excellent opportunity to network and have frank conversations with Ontario’s major players in regional and local sustainable food systems—if you missed it (or even if you didn’t), mark your calendars now: the fall of 2017 is just around the corner!