My $10.25 meal
It’s Saturday morning and the Dieppe farmers’ market on the outskirts of Moncton is buzzing. Farm stalls offer a local bounty: vegetables galore, plump strawberries and blueberry jam, meats and cheese, wines and apple cider. At the food court, I get a vegetable sandwich ($5), and my son, a small box of dumplings ($5). We share a strawberry smoothie ($5.50) and get two muffins ($5). For $10.25 each, we’ve had a delicious locally-prepared meal, made largely with local ingredients.
From farmers’ market to school meals
This thriving market is run by the Really Local Harvest, a co-op of 30 farmers from the southeastern region of New Brunswick. Two years ago, the co-op began supplying vegetables and meats to a start-up non-profit, the Réseau des cafeterias communautaires (a network of community cafeterias) which won the contract to manage 25 schools cafeterias in one of New Brunswick’s francophone school district.
Under the creative and entrepreneurial direction of Rachel Allain and Rachel Schofield Martin, local food now represents over 55% of the food served in cafeterias they run. Additional activities have included farm visits and training from chefs for kitchen staff, student catering of special events and summer culinary camps for kids.
More sales, more jobs, more healthy food
At the Really Local Food Coop, growth is steady. The Réseau’s purchases from the coop increased nearly 60% in the last school year, and the group’s distribution arm is doubling the size of its small warehouse as it prepares to supply another school district, this one under management of food service multinational Chartwells (a division of Compass Foods). Directors Mathieu D’Astous and Patrick Henderson list off their member farms which have grown with them, taking on more acreage and hiring more staff.
In addition to increasing the sales for farmers in the co-op, the project has brought other benefits to the local economy: steadier employment for the women working in school kitchens, banking with the local credit union and purchasing insurance from a local company. A study by economist Pierre Marcel Desjardins found that the socio-economic effects of the Réseau des cafétérias communautaires was close to $4 million for the 2013-2014 school year.
A concern for student health has made fresh, unprocessed foods a priority at the Réseau – even if they sometimes have to balance taste preferences with healthy ingredients, such as reverting to white flour instead of whole wheat in their baked chicken. In a recent comparison of how well New Brunswick school menus complied with provincial nutritional guidelines, part of a project of the New Brunswick Dietitians in Action and the New Brunswick Medical Society, programs managed by the Réseau were ranked at the top of the list, along with a school from the First Nations school board.
The $5 ceiling
The economic, social and environmental value of the Réseau des caféterias communautaires and the Really Local Harvest’s efforts are clear. But the constraints are equally evident. School lunch prices have never been more than $5 – a ceiling that seems difficult to break despite the mounting costs of production. With a ceiling like that, it’s impossible to foresee going beyond minimum wages for most staff, or increasing the volume of local, sustainable foods even when the price is only slightly higher than than products from more global distribution channels. Without the deep pockets of bigger players, breaking even is often a fragile affair.
Which brings me back to my $10.25 local lunch, and the difficulty of making changes when higher prices can’t be passed on to consumers — an enduring difficulty for institutions such as hospitals, long-term care centres and schools. Somehow, even in times of constrained budgets, the multiple values of healthy, local and sustainable food need to be recognized, and paid for.
The Really Local Food Coop and Réseau des Caféterias communautaires are Foundation grantees in the Regional Value Chain and Institutional Food programs, part of the Sustainable Food Systems initiative.