Question: I’m a buyer for a foodservice company supplying institutional kitchens. We’d really like to buy more local products. Is there an easy way to connect with suppliers?

Answer. Once upon a time, finding local suppliers who had the safety certifications, quantities, and distribution capabilities to meet the demands of foodservice meant spending a lot of time on the phone, talking to everyone from municipal economic development folks to OMAFRA (Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs).

When the Ontariofresh website went live in 2011, though, connecting Ontario farmers and food producers with buyers looking to increase the local food served in their facilities suddenly became a whole lot easier.

To find out more about Ontariofresh, we spoke with their communications manager, Megan Hunter.

BE: So what is Ontariofresh, exactly?

MH: Ontariofresh is the only province-wide online marketplace for local food.  We found  the larger buyers and the foodservice operators were saying, “We really want a one-stop shop for sourcing local,” and there are challenges for smaller producers having access to some of these markets. Essentially, we’re trying to become LinkedIn for local food in Ontario

BE: How did Ontariofresh get started? 

MH: The site itself has been live since November of 2011, so we’re only a few months old.

This project was created in conjunction with the Broader Public Sector Investment Fund. The BPS investment fund was a grant program aimed at getting more local food into our hospitals, daycares, long-term care—so, obviously, any public institution.

We’re just approaching 1150 members—so not bad! I’d like to double that in the next year, at least.

BE: How does the site work?

MH: All of our users create profiles on the site, and you can make connections in a similar way to Facebook or LinkedIn.

We also have a Marketplace, which is kind of like a local food Kijiji, where buyers and sellers can post requests or offers for products.

Our users can be anything from a small caterer or independent restaurant, all the way up to the major foodservice companies like Gordon Food Service or Sysco.

Producers provide details about their farm practices. So whether they’re certified Local Sustainable by Local Food Plus, whether they’re certified organic, or whether they have a “natural” focus—they identify all that information and are searchable that way through the site.

They also provide information about scaleand about food safety and traceability.

The whole idea is that you provide enough information that, at a glance, a potential buyer’s going to know whether you’re someone they could do business with.

BE: What kind of producers do you have?

MH:  We’ve got everything from specialty beef and pork to larger-scale producers. We’ve got Harmony Organics, Organic Meadows, we’ve got specialty and artisan grains, and then lots of apples, lots of potatoes, lots of carrots, edamame—all different types of things.

There’s actually some really interesting stuff—our producers are very diverse. For example, we have a commercial producer of goji berries—they do frozen and dried for the winter, and fresh for the summer. Sea buckthorn is another interesting health product. And we have a vodka distillery, who are making potato vodka. There’s a type of northern kiwi that some people are growing in Durham.

BE: Do you notice that buyers and consumers are more careful about the food they buy?

MH: Definitely, although we’ve seen a shift away from strictly organic towards local—I think as consumers are becoming more educated, and asking more questions about where their food is coming from.

Even if you’re not certified organic, you still could have some very legitimate and very conscious farm practices, and I think that consumers are much more open-minded about that now too. They’re saying, “I’d rather have it come from Joe, who’s in Dundas, Ontario. I can see pictures of his farm, and I know how he’s going about things.” That’s more of a priority than just being organic.

BE: What are some of the challenges for local suppliers working with larger buyers?

MH: Distribution can be a really big challenge, especially for the small and medium guys—buyers don’t want a bunch of trucks pulling up with just a couple of cases of food, so we need to figure out opportunities for us to help them consolidate product, for example.

BE: Where are your suppliers located? Are there gaps, geographically?

MH: We’ve definitely got stronger representation in the greater Golden Horseshoe. With us being part of the Greenbelt Foundation, our networks are stronger there out of the gate—but there’s also a lot more going on in southern Ontario than there is in the north.

There are 57,000 farms in Ontario, and over half of them are cash crops, but there’s certainly a long way to go in terms of getting that whole picture.

BE: What’s your feedback been like? Have you run into any challenges?

MH: Over 85% of our users would recommend us to their friends, which is good! For the most part people find it easy to use, registration is simple—there’s a lot of potential for the project, now it’s just building the momentum around it, and building the membership.

By the same token, though, changing people’s procurement habits on a day-to-day basis is not something that happens overnight. People are used to doing something a certain way, and now our challenge is going from “Everyone’s heard about it” to that next level of engagement, and giving them the tools to actually make their jobs easier.

BE: How have you gotten your users interested in using local food?

MH: We had our inaugural Buy Local challenge last fall, when we launched.

We were focusing on the broader public sector—so the idea was that they’d register for the challenge, and use the website to procure new and different local products. Then in challenge week they had to feature local products in their menu.

It gave the chefs a chance to highlight all the great work that they’re doing, but also gave them an incentive to incorporate Ontariofresh into their procurement patterns.

Considering the time crunch, we had a really fantastic turnout. Carleton University won—they put together a video, they got the students really excited and talking about it, and for seven days, all three meals had a local item. We were pleased with how well Carleton was able to do in such a short amount of time.

Executive Chef John Horton and Alicia Canez of Aramark Canada, winners of OntarioFresh's 2011 Buy Local Challenge

BE: It’s probably an obvious question, but here goes: why buy local?

MH: It sounds super cheesy to say “The win-win-win for everybody,” but that really is what it’s all about.

Corporate social responsibility is a big benefit, because it’s showing consumers and customers that they actually do care about the impacts of what’s being offered.

Supporting your local economy: that’s a big sell.

There are the incredible environmental benefits of not having your food travel from 5,000 kilometres.

And it tastes better. If you’ve ever eaten one of those oversized California strawberries and eaten an Ontario one at the same time, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I think that’s why there’s been a shift from just organic to local: because it’s actually better.

Image credits:, midiman, Ron Dressel, shelleybelly1