Amongst the crisp veggies, homemade sauces and fresh-cut meat, there’s another commodity doing brisk trade at Eat Local Sudbury: pride in, and demand for, locally produced food.
Since its inception in 2004, from its retail outlet in downtown Sudbury, Eat Local has sold locally grown produce, meats and value-added goods from farmers and producers operating within a 150-mile radius of the city. Eat Local deals with more than 100 vendors, 90 of whom are primary producers.
Recent funding from FedNor, the Greenbelt Fund, and the Local Food Fund will now allow it to expand its operations, something Eat Local’s managing director, Peggy Baillie, said is needed to meet demand for local food across the northeast region.
“We’ve been scaling up our operations here, but knowing that in order to really fulfil the needs of both the producers and the people who are interested in purchasing local food, there’s a big next leap that needs to be taken,” she said.
The goal is to make Eat Local Sudbury a regional hub for local food distribution with the added offshoots of increasing awareness of local food production, supporting local farmers, and boosting the economy. The funding will be used to develop a three-part business plan to expand both its retail facilities and its programming to accommodate a much larger volume of food.
Part one of the plan will focus on streamlining the food aggregation and distribution process. Currently, Eat Local travels to producers and farmers to pick up food and bring it back to Sudbury to distribute the food to consumers.
“This is a really important service because farmers, they just don’t have time to be able to leave the farm to do distribution, and it’s not cost-effective either,” Baillie said. “So, as a co-op, we’re able to offer that service where we collectively aggregate the food, which is a much-reduced cost to the producer and enables them to access markets that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to access.”
The second part of the plan calls for expanded retail space, along with an expanded offering of products. Options for a new physical space will be considered upon completion of the business plan, Baillie said.
The third part of the plan involves education and food literacy for consumers, so they know how to process and cook food, as well as institutions to learn how to process large volumes of food while controlling costs. There is also a business education component to train farms and food-related businesses for success, Baillie said.
Down the road, she said Eat Local might even look at offering training and incubation opportunities to bring new farmers on board and give veteran producers opportunities to scale up their operations.
“We actively need to recruit new farmers,” Baillie said. “There’s not enough food production in the North to meet the need at all, not even coming close.”
The lack of producers is, at least in part, due to a negative impression of farming life. The current perception of farmers — toiling in the fields from dawn until dusk, with no time off, for very little money — needs to change, and slowly it is, Baillie said. Over last number of years, alternative models of farming have emerged, and new producers are finding ways to make a decent wage producing food while finding balance in other areas of their lives.
Eat Local actually works with its vendors to plan what they will produce for the store throughout the year. Starting in 2015, the co-op will conduct a quarterly callout to vendors for certain products that are in demand. A jury comprised of co-op members will then sample and weigh in on the products.
“The public actually converses with the supplier to say, ‘This is what I like about it and this is what I don’t,’” Baillie said. “It’s a totally different way of engaging the membership and the people who want to eat the food in the development of the products.”
One of the biggest hurdles Eat Local still has to overcome is the belief that locally produced food always costs more, because that’s not always true, Baillie added. Yet even for those items that do, Bailie believes people are more aware today of the availability and benefits of locally produced food and are willing to pay for it, because they value it more.
But more awareness is always welcome.
“There’s still tons of work to be done to inform people about where their food’s coming from,” Baillie said. “I think that, in itself, has huge impacts in terms of our economy and how we operate and how we look at many different levels of how we interact with our community as well as our food.”
Baillie expected the business plan would be complete by Dec. 31, and expansion is expected to commence in 2015.