St. Joseph’s food purchasing group creating change from within

MEALsource helps farmers expand into health markets

By: Dick Snyder

Every Sunday from January 11 to February 1, we'll be publishing Greenbelt Fund-focused articles by respected journalist Dick Snyder. The four-part series, which will first run in the Toronto Star on the Saturdays preceding our posts, will highlight the diverse and innovative local food successes of our farmers, schools, hospitals, industries, and other Greenbelt Fund partners.

Sidebar_article_Pic_Wendy_copy.jpgPhoto Credit Shayne Gray

Wendy Smith has the power to make people eat more local food. 

But what really makes her happy is helping Ontario and Greenbelt farmers get their food into more healthcare institutions. This is no mean feat, as procurement policies and practices can make it difficult for smaller-scale farmers and producers to break in. 

Smith helps to ease the process. She is one half of a dynamic duo that runs MEALsource, a non-profit group-purchasing program that operates under St. Joseph’s Health System. From a small office on the fifth floor of St. Joe’s facility in Brantford, she and manager Candice Bester facilitate $16 million worth of purchases annually for 33 healthcare foodservice operations throughout Ontario.

What’s the upside for farmers, suppliers and distributors getting access to broader public sector (BPS) institutions? Well, this market in Ontario covers about 150 hospitals, 250 municipal and college-operated childcare centres, 100 municipal long-term care homes, 22 universities, 28 colleges, 100 school boards… and more. 

The economic potential for local food is huge, and it is organizations like MEALsource that are making it happen.

“The biggest piece of our job is vendor education. They say you don't buy our stuff and we say you don't play our game,” she says with a laugh. Smith takes the time to work with vendors and walk them through the RFP process, explaining how they need to meet criteria for such things as quality, safety and traceability. 

In 2012, MEALsource and My Sustainable Canada, working in partnership, were recognized as Greenbelt Fund Local Food Champions. Their project started with an audit to document the origins of hundreds of food products purchased by healthcare facilities. 

This led to a transformation in the bidding process to require information on food origin. Right away, more local producers began to respond, and purchasing of Ontario food has jumped by 15 percent.

The contracts are designed with long-term stability in mind, meaning farmers can count on a commitment that will allow them to invest in their own growth. 

“When we contract with a vendor, we provide anticipated annual volume and promise to meet that by a minimum of 85 percent. Should that commitment need to change, we provide 30 days notice so that the vendor can appropriately react to the decrease or increase in demand.”

MEALsource helped VG Meats in Simcoe win its first contract, after their first bid was unsuccessful. 

“We went through the process, and I said here’s the kind of product we wanted, and here’s the type you offered. And two years later they came back, met the criteria and were awarded three [products] in the program.”

With a two-year commitment, VG Meats was able to invest in strategic growth plans that will go even further to solidify their business. 

“When we bring someone along to a first win, it's very rewarding,” Smith says. “Hopefully, in the not too distant future, patients will expect quality local products on their trays and their expectations will be met.”


Click here to watch how MEALsource is working to connect local farmers and producers with St. Joseph's Health System in Brantford, Ont.

Local food champions help farmers expand their markets. Read 100km Foods' and Gordon Food Services' Stories Here.