Highlights of the Institutional Food Learning Group meeting Guelph, Jan 2016.

Guest post by Jennifer Reynolds, Institutional Food Program Manager at Food Secure Canada. This post was originally published on the Food Secure Canada Website. It was republished here with the permission of the author
For the past year and a half Food Secure Canada and the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation have been learning with the Institutional Food Learning Group, a cohort of eight diverse projects from across Canada, on how to effectively change the procurement practices of hospitals, schools, campuses and other larger food purchasers to prompt supply chain shifts towards more sustainable food production and systems.
Yet working as individuals to change the purchasing practices and institutional culture to prioritize sourcing more local, sustainable ingredients can be a daunting task. It requires patience and perseverance in learning how to navigate complex supply chains and and make changes in institutional food service operations. And when things get challenging it’s important to come back to the many reasons for doing this work including – to increase health and sustainability, to revitalize rural communities, to create a positive food culture – and this need for re-energizing is at the core of why the Learning Group comes together.

Learning from practitioners and site visits

university_of_guelph_visit_-_fscThe Learning Group met at the end of January 2016 in southern Ontario for three days to continue their learning from each other and to visit a school, hospital, campus and food distributor (links below) that are all working towards the goal of more fresh, local food being served in institutions.  Participants also heard about innovative procurement projects supported by the Greenbelt Fund’s Broader Public Sector Grant Stream including the Public Purse Procurement – 3P Mentorship Program and the journey of MEALsource, a public sector group purchasing organization for 33 health care food service locations in Ontario, in procuring from VG Meats (a local sustainable cattle processor) – check out their inspiring case study!
To someone new to the vernacular of procurement, the lingo can make for heady conversation:

“Why did your GPO change the evaluation criteria for its RFP for meat supplier from cost per gram to cost per gram of protein?”

“You created one local product code for the SKU that can be then be identified by origin for each province?”

“How did the local supplier negotiate their relationships with their direct sales clients after they became listed with the broadline distributor? ”

But what we heard from Learning Group members is that this meeting was exactly what they are looking for. “Getting a group of hard working, borderline burnt out individuals together to re-establish the connection and community we’re a part of collectively [is what we’re in need of]. We often work in isolation, and while web-based meetings are useful, nothing can replace the benefits of meeting in person” – feedback from Learning Group participant.

“Made to stick” communications

In addition to technical information, projects brainstormed how they can effectively use “made to stick”communications that are Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and Story-based, and also timely and engaging for their key audiences. Beyond their own projects, in-depth discussions explored how they might collectively inspire other institutions to start sourcing local, sustainable food. One such tool has already been created, a video by Équiterre about how two Learning Group projects of integrated healthcare and social service providers in Quebec, the CISSS des Laurentides and CIUSSS de l’Est-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, worked to get more local fruits and vegetables on their menus.

Alignment on Shared Values for successful organizational change

The group also spent some time reflecting on a 7 S’s framework of Shared Values, seven interdependent factors that need alignment for change to be successful within an organization – Shared Values, Skills, Staff, Style, Systems, Structure and Strategy. The framework brought to light some new and interesting insights and also reinforced how many of the projects are already addressing many of these elements effectively.

Scaling challenges

A common thread through many of the discussions related to the challenges of scaling up. On the “supply” side, there is a need to increase the volume of local, sustainable food production from small and medium sized growers to meet growing institutional demand combined with the challenges of scaling for distribution – how to aggregate local supply to better mesh with the larger volume institutional buyers and distributors. On the “demand” side, after an institution picks the ‘low-hanging fruit’ it can be challenging to make deeper changes in institutional purchasing and food service operations to enable more fresh, local foods to be on the menu. At a landscape level there are many questions about how institutions that are emerging niches of innovation can collaborate strategically to have an impact on the broader system issues, like inadequate information about product origin, or inadequate food budgets.
Stay tuned for future reports of the Institutional Food Learning Group’s journey!

Check out the links below for more information on the sites we visited:

FoodShare warehouse and Good Food Café  – The Good Food Café serves high quality, diverse, rotating menus at a low cost making fruit and vegetable focused meals that kids will actually eat.
St Michael’s Hospital – Having worked on local food for many years, the hospital most recently worked in partnership with George Brown College to increase local food items with new recipes for the patient menu.

Gordon Food Service – We learned about the evolution of their local program, now with 600+ products listed, and also toured the distribution warehouse. Local suppliers have ‘trading cards’ that tell customers about their product listings.  
University of Guelph – We learned about how dining services are increasing local purchasing including transforming an underutilized storage room into a fresh produce processing facility that enables them to purchase large volumes of locally grown fruits and vegetables in season, process them, and use them throughout the year – delivering on both flavour and savings!