Manitoulin Community Food Network seeks to encourage local distribution

LITTLE CURRENT—The Manitoulin Community Food Network held a local food connections event on May 1 at the Island Jar in Little Current, bringing together a number of local food producers (and consumers/supporters) to brainstorm on ways to get more local food into Island homes.

The event was touted as being for commercial growers and buyers of local food, with the goal of learning more about local food incentive programs, connecting producers with local food buyers, finding commercial local food suppliers, an optional seed swap, and providing an opportunity to learn more about the Good Food Box Program that has proven to be highly successful on Manitoulin, particularly in First Nations communities.

Moderator Valerie McIntyre guided the participants through a round of introductions that included both a few new faces and many local stalwarts of the local food movement, both on the production and consumer side.

Ms. McIntyre noted that this is a particularly good time to join the Manitoulin Community Food Network. “We are offering memberships free of charge for the month of May,” she said. The organization can be contacted through its Facebook page, or the contact page at manitoulinfood.com.

“What can we do to get more food to market?” asked Ms. McIntyre of the participants.

The need to create a centralized food distribution network quickly came to the fore. “The problem is that a five dollar sale at the farm gate is often a 45-minute conversation,” noted one producer. “It’s nice, but you can’t afford the amount of time it takes.”

Ms. McIntyre explained the concept behind the Manitoulin Good Food Box program, which attracted some interest from producers like the Green Bush’s Greg Pyette.

“It is essentially a co-op buying club for people who do not have regular access to good nutritious food options, often because of transportation issues or being elderly,” she noted. Volunteers put the food boxes together once a month at a central location. Community agencies and other volunteers then pick up the boxes and bring the good food boxes to distribution centres in their home communities.

“We are trying to expand the program into townships,” explained Ms. McIntyre, who noted that the program has seen most of its early success in rural Island First Nations. “It is supposed to be a two-prong thing, but right now it is more one-prong.”

Ms. McIntyre pointed out that currently the two Little Current grocery stores are active participants, alternating each month between the Little Current Valu Mart and GG’s Foodland.

One of the key challenges facing local food producers is the availability of refrigeration facilities suitable for produce. The cost of the physical plant involved is difficult to meet, although Mr. Pyette pointed out that his operation currently has spare capacity in their refrigeration storage that they would be interested in making available.

Another key piece of equipment that would go a long way toward making local food production more viable would be vacuum refrigeration units. Mr. Pyette explained that the units not only extend the shelf life of vegetable produce such as lettuce, they also have the added bonus of eliminating any small insects that might be found on the produce. “That is why you don’t find any bugs in produce at the grocery store,” he noted.

Although many grocery chains have buy local programs in place, the stores also have many packaging and quantity requirements that can prove to be hurdles to local producers seeking to crack that market.

With a local food co-op that deals with the distribution issues, allows for greater concentration of food products to meet the quantity demands of restaurants and stores and provides an opportunity to share costs of expensive production equipment in a central location, many of the local food producer hurdles could be overcome.

One of the surprising pieces of information that came out of the meeting is that competition for product at the southern Ontario food auctions means that southern food products are often more expensive than similar products in the North. This can prove to be a boon to Northern producers, but the aforementioned issues of shelf life and vacuum refrigeration can prove to be stumbling blocks there as well.

A perk of attendance at the meeting was the gift to those present of a heritage tomato plant courtesy of Boo Watson from Blue Jay Creek Art Farm. “I know it’s a heritage tomato plant, but I am not sure which one,” laughed Ms. Watson. “When the plants grow a little bit more I will be able to tell you.” That provides a great reason for keeping in touch.

In addition to seeking new members for the Manitoulin Community Food Network, the organization is also seeking members for the Good Food Box committee as well.