The Farm-to-Tray Movement
Hospitals may be known for their medical care; schools and universities for their higher learning, but there’s something else — something quite outside their actual raisons d’être — that these institutions have in common: They all prepare and serve thousands of meals a day.
According to Sustain Ontario, the province’s broader public sector — which includes provincial and municipal agencies, healthcare and educational facilities — spends $1.8 billion on food and beverages each year. Small wonder, then, that getting a toehold in the institutional market is seen as a high-potential opportunity for local farmers, giving them the incentive to ramp up production and helping to strengthen local food systems by fuelling innovation and investment throughout the supply chain.
In Ontario, the provincial government encourages the public sector to source more food locally, while the Greenbelt Fund has set up a grant stream to support such projects. At the same time, a number of institutions have rolled out their own local food initiatives. For example, University of Toronto Food Services has designed standards for sourcing local ingredients with specific requirements for sustainability and social justice.
In the Ottawa region, the Queensway Carleton Hospital (QCH) launched its Simply Outstanding Hospital Food Initiative (SOHFI) in 2011, a restaurant-style service that gives patients more choice and healthier, better-tasting food, a percentage of which is sourced in Ontario, including from the Ottawa region. (This follows the province’s definition of local as being harvested or produced in Ontario.) SOHFI is part of a wider QCH effort to improve patient satisfaction, cut waste and reduce its carbon footprint. With Greenbelt funding, and in partnership with Hospital Food Services Ontario, QCH developed three new products: butternut squash soup, beet soup, and tomato-basil pasta sauce, all made with produce from Foster Family Farm in North Gower. “The product development was very successful and helped increase the percentage of local food we purchase,” says Caralan Dams, manager of food services at QCH.
In the process, QCH has nurtured lasting relationships with several local farmers, hosts a twice-weekly farmers’ market at the back of the hospital during the growing season and provides a drop-off spot for members of Foster Farm’s CSA program. The hospital also changes up its menu to showcase local seasonal produce. Not only do patients benefit from fresher, healthier food, they love the taste of it, Dams says. “It’s so satisfying to see their reactions when we serve local strawberries or corn-on-the-cob just picked that morning.”
Buying local food can put pressure on tight hospital budgets, she notes, but QCH is managing. “Our goal is to spend $8.82 on food per patient per day. We’re spending $9.37 a day, slightly more. Although challenging, it is possible to buy local and meet our financial targets.”
While change is underway, shifting to local food faces several challenges, not least of which is how local is defined. While consumers understand it as food produced within the region, most institutions define it as any item produced or harvested in Ontario, says Moe Garahan, Just Food’s executive director. In fact, that’s how the Ontario Local Food Act describes it, although the preamble to the act does contain a reference to regional food systems that Just Food worked with the government to include.
Then there’s the matter of support for institutions testing out new procurement practices. The Local Food Act focuses mainly on marketing, doesn’t commit the provincial government to procuring local food and encourages rather than requires other public sector institutions to consider it. While funding organizations do offer grants for specific projects, there’s no on-going funding, so many projects “die as soon as the funding runs out,” says University of Toronto food systems and sustainability expert Lori Stahlbrand.
Another challenge is the scale at which public-sector institutions operate. The sheer volume of food a hospital or school board requires is beyond the capacity of small-scale local producers to provide. The seasonal nature of local food, along with fluctuations in price and availability, also conflict with institutions’ need for predictability. Finally, institutions don’t want to deal with multiple producers, deliveries and bills. Many find it easier and cheaper to source everything from one supplier who in turn relies on central warehousing and purchasing at big food terminals in Toronto or Montreal. A recent report from the Community Foundation of Ottawa identified the convenience of singlesourcing as a major obstacle to bringing more regional food into the area’s institutions.
Regulatory and trade issues pose further constraints. Current protocols for food safety and traceability are designed for big companies with the resources to implement them, not for small producers. “We need scale-appropriate regulation,” Garahan says. Institutions may steer clear of local purchasing because they believe it contravenes procurement and trade laws, a number of which prohibit favouring suppliers based on the geographic origin of their goods or services.
However, there are ways around the obstacles, such as setting formal policies that prioritize local food purchases, gradually increasing those purchases year over year and finding ways to leverage procurement of regional food whenever possible and affordable. Furthermore, as Sustain Ontario pointed out in its 2015 toolkit on procuring local sustainable food, institutions can purchase locally under business and trade law if they avoid references to geographic boundaries in their contracts with suppliers and use socioeconomic or environmental rationale instead, such as reducing waste or food miles.
Local food penetration is happening faster in universities than in other institutions, Garahan says, because there’s “strong interest from students and a mechanism to absorb costs.” The University of Ottawa is one example. It sets annual targets for local food (defined by the university as produced within 500 kilometres) and provides its dining service company, Chartwells, with sourcing criteria to encourage the purchase of products that are seasonal, organic and humanely raised. Today, local products account for 20 per cent of the university’s annual food purchases, putting the institution more than half-way to its goal of 30 per cent by 2023, says dietician and food liaison officer Maryann Moffitt. Having the entire supply chain on board would simplify the process, she adds. “Right now, the tendency among many food service and food distribution companies is to think nationally, not regionally. At the same time, there’s a lack of meaningful data to verify whether products meet criteria for regionality or sustainability. But as pressure builds, I think the data will become available.”
Until all food system players are on board, institutions committed to more regional sourcing may have to go the extra mile to make it happen. For example, QCH’s Caralan Dams goes to local farmers’ fields herself, sometimes as early as 6 a.m., to buy fresh seasonal produce for the hospital kitchen. It’s worth it, she says. “The only drawback is that sometimes the trunk of my car isn’t big enough.”