Good Food on the Menu: Update on the Institutional Food Program

breakfast tables and dining area from above


In the past year, the first cohort of the Foundation’s Institutional Food fund grantees has made exciting headway in their work to increase purchasing of local and sustainable ingredients at their respective institutions. Eight projects–which include schools, hospitals, long-term care centres and campuses across Canada–have collectively directed $1.6 million to the sourcing of locally-produced food, including $325,000 toward goods that meet additional sustainability criteria such as meat raised without the use of therapeutic antibiotics.
Projects achieved these changes through a diverse array of activities, from coordinating farm-direct deliveries, to the creation of new positions, to development of cross-institutional working groups.
One of the barriers to sourcing local, sustainable food institutions is a lack of infrastructure to support the connection between sustainable suppliers and eager buyers, and several institutions in our cohort have risen to the challenge of connecting local producers and institutions. North Island College in Comox Valley, Vancouver Island has successfully coordinated farm-direct deliveries to expand local sustainable food sales to a hospital and an acute care facility in the region. Similarly, the Ecology Action Centre of Halifax, Nova Scotia has developed a regional value chain that enables the delivery of individually quick frozen fillets from sustainable fish harvesters to a local hospital and long term care facilities in nearby Yarmouth.
Members of this cohort have also found success in the implementation of staff programs that focus on working with and highlighting seasonal ingredients. In Montreal, Équiterre has been collaborating with CSSS Pointe de l’île’s long term care centre and the local school board to train kitchen staff in the hospital on identification and preparation of seasonal fruits and vegetables through menu development and branding. In New Brunswick, the Réseaux des cafétérias communautaires–which operates in 25 schools in a francophone school district–now sources 60% of its ingredients from a local food hub. The Réseau invests in staff development through teaching advanced culinary schools, hosting farm visits, and experimenting with creative marketing and educational activities designed to engage students and parents with the food system. Through the creation of a Sustainable Food System Manager position at Concordia University, the university has developed local and sustainable purchasing targets in collaboration with the university’s food service provider.
Additional highlights of these projects include the development of collaborative networks and working groups. In Vancouver, Farm Folk City Folk has developed a partnership with the Vancouver School Board and worked with distributor Sysco to create recipes that highlight seasonal ingredients for high schools in the region. In Alberta, Edmonton Northlands has convened a diverse working group of institutions and distributors which collectively represents over $100 million in annual food purchases. Together, these stakeholders are working on strategies to simplify the process of identifying local foods as well as to increase purchasing of local, sustainable products.

Challenges and Learning

Foundation partner Food Secure Canada facilitates a Learning Group of these projects which connects regularly by videoconference. The collective shares successes, challenges, lessons learned, and offers one another support.
And challenges abound! One of the most important issues for many is the change in institutional culture required to make a shift to good food. Whether it involves peeling more carrots, tracking purchases differently or implementing seasonal menus, there are entrenched ways of working that can be difficult to change.
On the other hand, even as they help to build understanding and demand for fresh, local or sustainable food, several projects have been confronted with difficulties in finding sufficient supply of local or sustainable products at a price that institutions are ready to pay. There are many systemic barriers for local producers trying to sell into the current mainstream food distribution system or directly to institutions, including increasingly stringent food safety traceability requirements that are often not viable for smaller producers.

Looking Forward

The Foundation and Food Secure Canada have been developing a joint strategy for the next stage of the Institutional Food program, focusing on identifying key points of leverage and ways to address systemic barriers to our vision of delicious, healthy, local and sustainable food in institutions. As we deepen our understanding of the complex institutional food system, we are grounded by the real-world successes and difficulties of the projects in this cohort. We look forward to continued collaboration with actors across the value chain as well as governments and other funders to create widespread change.