Organics on the Menu?

Challenging for many institutions to buy local and organic produce

Increasingly we are seeing local, organic products in restaurants and retail shops across PEI. Bistro chalkboards and gourmet grocery shelves featuring Island-grown organics confirm that the ‘buy-local movement’ is happening close to home. Meanwhile institutions providing meals for the elderly, the ill, and the young on PEI, appear to have less momentum when it comes to sourcing local and organic for their menus.

While there are select schools, nursing homes, and community centres intentionally incorporating local food into their establishments—the Charlottetown Rural High School Garden Community Project being one example—the majority of institutions, public or private, that purchase large quantities of food for their menus are not sourcing local or organic ingredients. This is a topic of interest for many working groups on PEI including PEI Food Security Network (FSN), PEI Home and School Board, and the PEI Certified Organic Producers Cooperative (COPC).

Morgan Palmer works with the Public Schools Branch on the School Food Environment Project and is developing a provincial strategy for school food. Bulk purchasing and group procurement of local food is part of this strategy and a demonstration project may occur in the fall of 2019. Bulk purchasing opportunities for all PEI schools would therefore not be in effect for a number of years.

Soleil Hutchinson, organic farmer and owner of Soleil’s Farm, said, “I think the model is already out there, it would just be a matter of making it specific to institutions. I know some farmers are scared of going to institutions because of requirements, but I would rather be certified where I can be able to sell across the board. I’m not scared. I just don’t know what I need.”

The already existing model that Hutchinson is referring to is Plate It, the sole wholesale distributor of certified organic local food on PEI. Plate It, owned by Lee Clarke, supplies 30 restaurants and three retail grocers from a dozen farmers across the Island. Plate It is not currently supplying any publicly owned institutions. According to Clarke, “Farmers need contracts to go to the next stage. Organic farmers on PEI could maintain the supply necessary for institutions if they had contracts.” Hutchinson agrees that meeting the demand for local organics is not an issue for farmers and should not be a deterrent for institutions to begin purchasing PEI organics. “Plate It is not actually purchasing enough from me. The supply is there…it’s really just having someone investigate and organize it [institutional buying].”

Many institutions are operating on tight budgets without adequate coordination or infrastructure to implement new food procurement programs. Lack of adequate storage and kitchen facilities and coordination of the ordering, distribution, and preparation of local organic foods prevent many institutions from adopting new menus. “The problems that we have globally we also have locally: storage, packaging and processing, and distribution are the three largest issues for organics, both globally and on PEI,” Clarke said.

PEI Certified Organic Producers Cooperative, a research, education, and market development member-owned cooperative, is currently organizing two vendor fair events to bring together institutional buyers and local certified organic farmers. The list of institutional buyers is yet to be confirmed, however, the organization hopes to host Holland College, Chartwells, and the provincial procurement service manager among other Island food procurers in an information and ‘speed dating’ session with farmers. Buyers will have the opportunity to communicate with farmers what their requirements are for purchasing as well as the products they are interested in. Farmers, similarly will have the chance to inform institutional procurers on what they can supply to the market.

As the trend towards buying locally grown organics continues in the consumer market, we can expect to see more events and programs advocating for the same food options within institutions.

About Hanna Hameline

Hanna is a graduate of UPEI with a B.A. in Sociology. She has completed trainings in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Shambhala Meditation, and Maritime Yoga College 200-HR Yoga teacher training program. Hanna currently works as the communications coordinator for the PEI Certified Organic Producers Co-operative and has volunteered with PEI Food Security Network, ECO PEI, The Voluntary Resource Centre, and Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter. She warmly invites you to contact her with any food lovin’ stories or ideas you would like written about.

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