Building the Green Link

The folks at Slow Food Toronto have issues.

This past Monday, February 26th, they met at Hart House, along with a variety of local farmers, food purveyors, chefs and media to discuss how to best deal with them.

The issues being, of course, how to set up links between small local farms and the restaurants and consumers (aka. co-producers) who want their products.

A panel consisting of farmers, farmer’s market organizers and restaurateurs discussed the hurdles faced by everyone in ensuring local produce made it to local plates. Speakers included Stephen Alexander of Cumbrae’s; Susan Benson of the Culinary Tourism Initiative; Pamela Cuthbert, food writer and Slow Food Toronto founder; Anne Freeman of the Dufferin Grove Market; Jamie Kennedy of Jamie Kennedy Kitchens; and Mark Trealout of Kawartha Ecological Growers, as well as panel moderator Wayne Roberts of the Toronto Food Policy Council.

With a goal of forging partnerships between local growers and both restaurants and farmer’s market customers, the panel took turns speaking on various initiatives to increase awareness and dialogue.

One of the main concerns brought up is that a farmer running a small-scale family farm simply does not have time to travel into the city every day of the week to do restaurant deliveries or sell their wares at the various local markets. The obvious solution to this would be for farmers to form collectives where a distributor, either on a rotating basis or one person taking on the job exclusively, would collect product from each farm in a specified area and would take care of deliveries and market stalls on behalf of the participating farms. This requires a lot of networking and bureaucracy, however, and a lot of legwork to ensure that orders would be filled.

Stephen Alexander of Cumbrae’s pointed out that meat producers are often faced with a situation where the restaurants they supply only want the prime cuts, leaving them with a variety of parts that require more work to make edible. What is needed is that either restaurants get more creative and start producing their own charcuterie to add to their menus, or meat-producers need to make “value-added” products that are attractive to restaurants and consumers. An example of this is the River Cottage Farm model in the UK, where they offer an item called “pig in a box”; customers buy a whole live pig, and after slaughter, they receive a box containing ribs, ham, bacon and a variety of sausage, salami, pate, etc, which collectively uses up every part of the pig. Their slogan is “everything but the oink!”

Restaurants could also buy shares in a community-supported agriculture (CSA) programme, in which they buy a share of a farm’s annual output and receive a weekly box of products. Restaurants with a set menu might find this difficult however, as the contents of the box change from week to week. The Gladstone Hotel did a series of events last summer where they offered dinners created from CSA box contents – the chef never knew what he’d have to work with until the day before the dinner, so the end result was a delicious surprise for everyone.

Another option is for farmers and chefs to work together on a CSA model with the farm growing to the restaurants specifications. This ensures product for the restaurant and a guaranteed customer for the farm, and allows both to work together to create a unique menu with exclusively grown product.

Other issues that surfaced during the discussion were general ideas associated with the Slow Food movement:

  • Canadians are spoiled in terms of food costs, paying an average of only 9% of our income on food, compared to 11% in the US and 18% in the UK. We need to have programmes in place to convince Canadians that cost is not the only factor in terms of food choices, and ensure that we all know that it’s worth the extra money for local, sustainably-grown organics.
  • A need for greater education in terms of knowing what’s in your food and knowing the benefits (environmental, financial and nutritional) of eating on a “shorter food chain”. Until this education is offered, the slow food movement, which encompasses everything from eating locally to organics, will continue to be an elite niche market.
  • A focus on “locally branded” products that would help showcase specific areas and farms within Toronto’s restaurants, and also in terms of culinary tourism to encourage people to visit local farms and surrounding areas (ie. wine tours of Niagara).

The final portion of the event featured an opportunity to meet local growers and purveyors, with a buffet lunch and displays from places like Forbes Wild Foods, Kerr Farms, Monforte Dairy, Seeds of Diversity, Stoddart Family Farms, Local Flavour Plus, Fous-y-tout Farms, and more. Meeting the farmers who had provided the food for our lunch was a great treat, and allowed everyone to associate their meal not with the sterile plastic-wrapped aisles of the supermarket but with the individuals who work so hard to create food for the rest of us.

We didn’t solve all the problems that morning at Hart House, but I think we did manage to plant the seeds of future “green links” that will hopefully bear fruit in the form of partnerships between farmers and chefs and those of us who just love to eat good food.