In the early morning of September 22nd, a crowd descended upon Lawrence Heights Community Centre, buzzing with anticipation. Fuelled by excitement and strong coffee, participants of the Distribution tour became acquainted with the day’s facilitators and each other.
Distribution is a multi-faceted issue within Ontario. For some on the tour, the topic was a new interest, while for others, it was and continues to be the subject of ongoing work and concern. As with many segments of the industrial food system, distribution is controlled by a handful of large companies, posing challenges for small scale food growers and processors, who may not have the volume or capacity to distribute through such means. It also challenges communities in terms of access – while there may be an abundance of food in production, if it is not effectively and efficiently distributed, this food can become unattainable or simply undesirable. Food waiting to be distributed loses freshness, flavour, nutritional value, and ultimately can create unnecessary food waste. Food travelling thousands of miles to reach our tables via trucks and planes contributes harmfully to the environment. Distribution is a critical issue – without it, we cannot move food from farms to families. Fortunately for Ontario, we do have many innovative food distribution projects working to provide healthy alternatives for local communities.
The first stop on our tour was Front Door Organics, a warehouse and distribution centre that provides fresh organic produce through a food box delivery program to homes throughout Toronto. After a treat of local apples, we were taken into the sorting area of the warehouse to observe the day-to-day operations of the organization and discuss some of the challenges and opportunities for food distribution in the city. With farmers, students, city planners, not-for-profit workers, and even an OMAFRA representative present, we entered into a lively discussion about the role of government, business, and not for profits in rebuilding the middle of the food system for greater health, access, and resilience.
Stepping back onto the bus, Debbie Field of FoodShare encouraged us to become keenly aware of the landscape passing by our windows. Using the bus as the conference venue allowed us to begin to build maps in our heads, realizing where food could be accessed in relation to where people live and work. The results were striking, with many on the bus noting some of the highest density dwellings and neighbourhoods were most lacking in green grocers or grocery stores. This led to a discussion of the idea of ‘food deserts,’ and how they are not unique to low income communities.
Our second stop occurred at the Ontario Natural Food Co-op (ONFC), a warehouse in Northern Mississauga that distributes natural and organic foods throughout Ontario and Atlantic Canada. Upon arrival, the group was treated to a lunchtime sampling of the Co-op’s private label brand of soups, which is 100% Ontario-grown, processed, and distributed. After a talk with Randy Whitteker, the General Manager, and Carol Hutchinson, the Ontario Natural Brand Manager, the group divided into two and took a walk through the warehouse. With floor to ceiling racking, filled with over 4,000 SKUs (stock keeping units) the ONFC was a markedly larger operation than the previous site we had visited. As a co-operative, the customer base of the ONFC is a mix of non-members and members that are co-ops, buying clubs, and natural health food stores, with more than 50% of sales from natural foods. At this point in time, the co-op largely sells consumer-packaged goods, with some fresh and frozen foods, but is committed to reaching back to its roots to foster a sustainable and localized food system. As such, ONFC operates a Fresh Truck which supplies fresh foods within the GTA, as well as an exciting new initiative to connect and strengthen Ontario’s local, organic, and fair trade food and farming co-operatives through a network that provides resources, trainings, education, advocacy, and support.
On the next leg of the tour, Ayal Dinner and Hannah Renglich answered many lingering questions about the nature of co-ops, as both facilitators are engaged in this organizational model. With many different models, co-ops are democratically governed and economically owned by their members, resulting in four basic structures: producer-owned, consumer-owned, worker-owned, and multi-stakeholder. Co-ops around the world are committed to keeping value in their communities, through providing jobs and engaging in activities for community benefit, and valuing people before profit. They benefit from greater survival rates and weather economic downturns much better than other kinds of businesses. The United Nations has declared 2012 as the International Year of the Co-operative, and this year’s Organic Conference in Guelph will recognize this through a co-op focus and theme: “Seeds of Co-operation.”
Our third stop of the day was the bustling Dufferin Grove Farmers’ Market, where Anne Freeman, the Market Manager and coordinator of the Toronto and Greenbelt Farmers’ Market Networks, greeted us with fresh bread and local butter and jam, and gave us a brief overview of the market. Farmers’ markets in the city are a unique form of fresh food distribution, linking farmers and producers directly to consumers/eaters. We learned a bit about market bucks, a coupon or voucher that could be either purchased or given to shoppers by community agencies or partners, allowing people to shop at farmers markets stigma-free. We also learned about the network of farmers’ markets across Toronto that supports and encourages one another. Dufferin Grove strives to provide low-cost booth space for its vendors, so as to make it an affordable vending space, and boasts regular Friday night pay-what-you-can suppers, a bake-oven, and a community garden.
A short walk from the Farmers’ market brought us to FoodShare, where Ayal presented a slideshow on the West End Food Co-op, Toronto’s newest food co-operative. The West End Food Co-op operates the Sorauren Farmers’ Market on Monday afternoons in the West End, and will soon be opening a community food store in the basement of a Community Health Centre at Queen and Dufferin. Strategically devoted to engaging, empowering, and skilling its community, the it has worker, producer, consumer, and community partner members who are active participants in the development and activities of the co-op. The Community Cannery project works with partner farms in a Community-Supported Orchard (CSO) program, bringing fruit to community kitchens for pickling and preserving workshops. Social financing in the form of community bonds has allowed the co-op to raise over $150,000 to capitalize their incoming store, in collaboration with the natural renovation talents of the Fourth Pig Worker Co-op. The Sorauren Market has been building the momentum and enthusiasm of the community for local food for several years now.
A hop, skip, and a jump down the hallway, our fourth and final presentation was given by FoodShare’s Coordinator of Social Enterprise, Zahra Parvinian, who showed us the contents of a Good Food Box, teeming with barely-handled fresh produce. She spoke about the importance of quality food, and again touched on the idea of reducing stigma by universally subsidizing the Good Food Box to make it accessible and affordable for everyone. Debbie Field supplemented this with some information about student nutrition programs in the city, and a suggestion that schools could take up fresh food distribution (FoodShare is housed in an old school building, and now at its maximum capacity between its many food programs). She also left us with some provocative ideas about subsidizing staples, as is done in Brazil and Kerala state in India, so as to make certain healthy foods affordable and widely available, while supporting farmers of these foods in a direct manner. For example, if carrots, apples, cheese, broccoli, and soy nuts were available at a standard rate of $0.50/kg in every corner store, Ontario might begin to combat food accessibility challenges, thus creating a more food secure society.
It was an incredible day, not only educating but inspiring new curiosity in all of us. Most memorably, our bus driver participated in many of the visits, perhaps gaining more from the day, coming from outside of food system work. Participants headed back to Lawrence Heights Community Centre for the plenary supper brimming with ideas and information to guide us forward in our individual and collaborative work. Thank you to all of the generous site hosts, as well as all of the organizers of the City to Country tours for making this great educational experience and relationship-building opportunity available to all of us!
by Hannah Renglich, Ontario Natural Food Coop and Local Organic Food Cooperative Network