Local farmers hold the key to satisfying consumer appetites

During the next several months, stories highlighting the significant economic impacts, innovative projects, and leadership of Greenbelt Fund grantees will be appearing in some of the province’s most read agriculture publications, including The Grower, Ontario Farmer, Better Farming, and Country Guide East. We’ll be celebrating the success stories by publishing them here as well.

Geoff Teasdale (left) and senior driver Peter Jacques (right) unloading local produce at Sysco Southwestern Ontario.

Food origin identification helps lead to 20 per cent local food increase for large distributor

Sysco Ontario, a large distributor with the unique ability to reach the majority of the province’s population through their distribution network, was seeing a clear trend: Ontarians wanted to know more about the food they purchase.

The company has always provided a significant selection of local food, but was looking for a way to improve their operations to better identify, track and categorize their local products based on specific characteristics consumers were looking for. As requests for more information about the origin of their food grew, Sysco Ontario approached the Greenbelt Fund.

"If there is a growing demand at the end-user level, then we want to lead the charge in that area," says Geoff Teasdale, Vice President, Merchandising, Sysco Ontario Division.

Funding the foundation for local food
In order for Sysco Ontario to better promote Ontario and Greenbelt-grown food, the company and its producers reviewed all 9,000 products listed in their computer system. Together, they worked to revamp the database and input valuable information on key product traits that consumers look for such as: biodegradable, gluten free, kosher, low sodium, organic and local.

"It started with students," says Teasdale. "They were asking the food service providers in their schools for this information."

The updated database has allowed Sysco Ontario to answer these questions, and meet the needs of the students and other Ontarians requesting locally produced food. Now, they can provide up-to-date product lists to broader public sector institutions, such as schools, hospitals and long-term care homes, and let them easily select the local produce that they want to order.

The definition of local
Local food is defined as a product of Ontario. Sysco producers had to determine which of their products fit under the "local" category using the consumer and industry approved definitions of Ontario Food Products from Foodland Ontario. This information was needed, so sales reps and customers could easily identify local products in their system.

"Building this database wasn’t easy," adds Teasdale. "We had to review 9,000 products listed in our Peterborough and Toronto facilities."

Sysco Ontario has since opened a brand new facility in Woodstock supporting southwestern Ontario, creating 250 jobs and growing the region’s economy.

“Strengthening our local program has allowed us to better understand our customers and the ever-changing tastes of their customer base," says Teasdale. "Working with the Greenbelt Fund has allowed us to help provide the best quality, variety and value for the great local products that are produced in our own backyard."

In addition to identifying local food in their database, Sysco launched an ambitious pilot project.

"We’ve established a demand order system whereby customers can place an order based on local product offerings," says Teasdale. "Availability calendars are updated monthly and we work with 100km Foods’ network of local farmers to obtain the products."

As a non-profit, the Fund delivers support to farmers and local food leaders to ensure more of the good things that grow in Ontario are being served and distributed through our public institutions. To date, for every dollar the Greenbelt Fund has invested, twelve more dollars in Ontario food has been purchased.

Driving the demand for local food in Ontario
As a result of the Greenbelt Fund’s support, Sysco Ontario has developed strong relationships with local farms and increased their sales of local products by approximately 20 per cent.

"The Greenbelt Fund is helping to change the face of foodservice and driving demand for local food in Ontario," says Teasdale.

Sysco is now able to produce reports on the amount of local food that public institutions purchase, customers are now able to track and monitor changes in their own food purchases and this activity will certainly benefit the local farms."

With support from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) the Greenbelt Fund is investing in the 
agri-food system across the province. It connects people throughout the food supply chain and makes investments at critical points to encourage more use of Ontario and Greenbelt-grown food. At nearly two million acres of protected green space and fertile farmland, the Greenbelt is a catalyst for strengthening the viability of agriculture across the province.