November 26, 2008
Widespread collaboration on Vancouver Island has spawned a new business that challenges the dominant foodservice/restaurant distribution system.
Recent polls suggest that three quarters of Canadians are now seeking out food grown by local farmers and produced by local businesses. However, current demand for local food is outstripping supply.
A network of concerned organizations and businesses on Vancouver Island is taking this supply shortage seriously, and is forging ahead with what may become a working model for other Canadian communities looking to relocalize their food supply.
While some independent grocery stores and restaurants are making efforts to link up with farmers to source local food, the process is often far from efficient.
Sandra Mark of Edible Strategies Enterprises Ltd. (ESEL) in Fanny Bay, suggests that the supply problems preventing Canadian businesses from accessing local food are not well understood. ESEL has been developing the business plan for the new co-operative over the past few years.
"Policies at the federal level in particular, favour commodity production and don't really favour food production," says Mark. "The result of all this is that we're importing food much more cheaply than it can be produced."
The vulnerability of such a reliance on imported food is quite apparent on Vancouver Island. The Island once produced up to 85% of food consumed. Today, that figure is below 10%.
The Heritage Foodservice Co-operative Association
Born out of the Islands Good Food Initiative, the Heritage Foodservice Co-operative Association (HFCA) has been formed to facilitate the efficient movement of locally grown and prepared foods into the kitchens of institutions and restaurants.
The Co-operative is set to match farmers with shared labour, processing and packing facilities, transportation and distribution.
One of four founding directors of the HFCA is Karin Lengger - General Manager of the Vancouver Island operations of Small Potatoes Urban Delivery (SPUD). SPUD is Canada's largest organic grocery home delivery service and maintains one of the greatest investments of any Canadian business in local food systems. "Supporting local farmers is high on our agenda," says Lengger.
SPUD has long been interested in solutions to the local food access puzzle. "From a purely business sense, in the long term, we don't feel that we're going to have a business down the road unless we have a local food supply," insists Lengger.
Lengger is referring to what Frank Moreland of ESEL suggests is the hollowing out of local food systems. "The actual physical infrastructure (the loading docks, the trucks) doesn't exist anymore for short-distance food systems," says Moreland. He adds that the long-distance food system has resulted in farmers now only representing 2% of Canada's population.
Contributing to the disappearance of farmers is the supply chain upon which our food system is structured. "A lot of great work by the National Farmers' Union shows how the supply chain actually vacuums profits from the productive farmer," says Moreland. "As most of the value added to any raw ingredient is generated through processing, farmers are often left with the short-end of the stick."
The HFCA is challenging this model that has dominated Canada's food system for decades. Instead of using the traditional model of 'supply chains', the HFCA will implement a 'value chain'. In a value chain, no link along the chain will extract a disproportionate percentage of the final food dollar.
Another founding director of the Co-operative is Bill Code of the Island Farmers' Alliance. "[The Co-operative] will allow farmers more opportunity to farm and improve their production when they've already been compromised doing several things in marketing or going to the farmers' markets," says Code.
Excitement surrounding the launch of this new business also comes from Island' chefs. James Street of the North Vancouver Island Chefs Association lists a number of concerns facing the industry. "Chefs really want local food on their menus," says Street. "They're feeling the pressure from the consumers, but they don't have the time to source the product."
Adding to concerns facing the restaurant industry is a declining pool of skilled labour with which to convert raw ingredients into menu items. In response, the HFCA will create employment in co-packing facilities by adding value to the farm product before it reaches the restaurant. "It may not be a case of having carrots come in whole and with the peel on, they may have to come in either peeled or pre-cut," suggests Street. While the current food system does not allow the profit from such added value to make its way back to the farmer, the co-operative will ensure some of it will.
Sandra Mark is optimistic. "The Islands Good Food Initiative will work because there are so many people who get that we need to do something and we need to do it collectively. We want to eat good food and we want our families to eat good food."
Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. More information on today's topic can be found at (www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner/112907.htm).
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