People: Making Connections
As the food system became more industrialized and commercial, we became disconnected from the people who grew and produced our food.
This created a food value chain with many stakeholders that fall between the grower and purchaser including: processors, distributors, retailers, and foodservice companies. As a result, a disconnect has developed between the farmers who grow food and the people who eat it.
The lack of formal and informal communication channels between farmers and buyers can make it challenging for creating the change needed to increase local food purchases within institutions. For this reason, it is critical to build connections between the agricultural industry and members of the foodservice value chain.
Progress Being Made
- A health care group wanted to increase the amount of local food they purchased through contracts and the RFP process. Unfortunately, very few local food producers were aware that the health care market was an option for them, and even fewer were familiar with the RFP process. To address this gap, the health care group worked with a third party NGO that reached out to local food producers anytime a contract went to tender. The NGO also provided a basic orientation to the RFP process, so that the local food producers were able to enter proper bids.
- An NGO working within a school board wanted to increase staff buy-in within a school board for supporting local food. They organized farm tours and tastings of local food to help the school personnel feel more connected to the food they would be buying and the farms they would be supporting. As a result, staff enthusiasm for supporting local food increased, and the NGO and board were better able to achieve long-term changes in purchasing practices.
- A produce marketing board wanted to increase communication between their growers and the purchasers within the public sector. They hosted a workshop, which allowed both groups to sit at the same table and discuss both what the producers could provide, and what the purchasers needed. The workshop allowed the growers and purchasers to discuss product needs, and some groups were able to establish new business partnerships.
Some Solutions for Bridging the Disconnect
Ontariofresh.ca is an online network for farmers and buyers to meet electronically. Some call it a virtual dating site for buyers and farmers, or others call it the LinkedIn for local food. Either way it is successful at making connections between those people selling local food and those who are buying it. We have only just begun to realize the potential of a province-wide network that includes businesses across the value chain from primary producers to processors to distributors and end buyers with detailed business information. Ontariofresh.ca has grown to become so much more than a database, and there is tremendous opportunity for further growth. The site can also be used for organizations to issue Ontario specific request for proposals and for producers to proactively connect with buyers. As of this year, agriculture groups as well as regional culinary and economic development groups can create and manage Ontariofresh.ca profiles for their members and have their brands reinforced and searchable throughout the site. Stay tuned for more organizations coming on board over the next year.
Every year, the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (recently rebranded as Restaurants Canada) hosts a trade show that attracts more than 12,000 food service professionals. In the past, there have been many Ontario companies showcased at the show, but if you ever asked someone to point you to where the Ontario products were, you’d be hard pressed to find them on your own. It was like finding a needle in a haystack. For the last two years, things have been quite different, as the Greenbelt has been busy coordinating an Ontario Pavilion at the CRFA Show. In March 2015, there will be nearly 50 vendors all aggregated in the same area, complimented by a live demonstration stage featuring celebrity chefs such as Anna Olson and Brad Long, and a marketing strategy that lets participating businesses share costs and get more bang for their buck at the show. The companies that participated in 2014 were able to establish great business leads and they will be back for more next year.
Many of the Greenbelt Fund grantees have hosted workshops, tours, and events designed to bring everyone in the food value chain together, to discuss how they can better connect. These sessions are instrumental in helping to close the gap between producers and purchasers. In many cases, events like these provide value chain stakeholders the opportunity to connect for the first time. They are helpful not only in connecting members of the value chain, but also allow for purchasers of food to discuss product needs with the people who grow the products.
Value Chain Management
Linking all players in the food value chain is probably the most effective way of building relationships and driving change, but it can be resource intensive and requires high levels of participation and buy-in. It also requires a great degree of trust and openness amongst the participants, which can be challenging in any industry.
Keep your eyes open for our next Local Food Solution Paper where we will be talking about Trade Agreements. Follow @ontariofresh on Twitter to join the conversation.
This series is written with contributions from: Kathy Macpherson, Franco Naccarato, and Brendan Wylie-Toal.