Feature

The Business of Getting Affordable, Local Food onto the Plates of New Brunswickers

Tomavo on Mountain Road in Moncton tries hard to stock as much local produce as it can. Image: Tomavo Facebook page.

MONCTON – Businesses are teaming up with non-profit organizations, government agencies, public institutions, community groups and farmers to get healthy, low-cost, local food onto the plates of New Brunswickers.

The ways local businesses are trying to do this are many and varied. They’re creating a network to provide food grown on the province’s farms to schools that need healthy meal options for kids. Local stores are doing their best to stock their shelves with local food. Innovative producers are trying to find ways to increase the production of local, affordable produce.

Companies like Speerville Flour Mill have been focusing on healthy, local food options for decades. But Laura Reinsborough, network director for the New Brunswick Food Security Action Network (NBFSAN), says food security issues like this are more top of mind now.

“Food security has been acknowledged as a priority for most regions in New Brunswick from a number of different perspectives,” she said.

Farm-to-Cafeteria

In 2016, on average, almost 20,000 New Brunswickers used food banks each month, according to data from NBFSAN’s Everybody Eats program. Today, around 21 per cent of children live in food-insecure households. Yet, Reinsbourough said some of the most creative and successful initiatives in Canada are taking place in New Brunswick schools.

“Sometimes it’s an entrepreneurial spirit, sometimes it’s a community group coming together to form a non-profit,” she said.

Many businesses show their support through charitable contributions. Others are working with non-profits like the Cooperation in Agri-Food New Brunswick (CANB), which was founded by the Agricultural Alliance of New Brunswick, the National Farmers Union in New Brunswick and three education organizations representing more than 30 schools.

Farmers’ Truck CEO and co-founder Frederic Laforge is CANB’s director of operations. He said many companies are eager to help find solutions to food insecurity.

“It was mind-blowing at the AGM to see everyone at the table,” he said. “You had farmers, schools, provincial and federal government officials, private businesses, everybody’s on board.”

CANB serves as a facilitator for both farmers and customers. It studies the market to understand where opportunities lie for farmers. Its key initiative is a farm-to-cafeteria program, where local produce is being sold to schools to ensure more nutritious meals for students.

Profit from the sales will help cover some of the cooperative’s expenses. Since starting operation in September, 93 of the more than 300 schools in the province have signed up. CANB is working with 16 farmers on the project. While schools are the priority, CANB plans to expand the program to hospitals and other public facilities.

Pat Mills is the chef at Carrefour Beausoleil in Miramichi. Image: submitted.

One of the key players in the initiative is Pat Mills, chef at Carrefour Beausoleil in Miramichi, a community centre that includes a K-12 school and a daycare.

Mills and the centre’s executive director, Marc Allain, tested the program at a small scale two years ago. This year, the Carrefour bought 30,000 pounds worth of produce from local farms, 10 times more than last year.

Mills said his lasagna is “99 per cent New Brunswick” after switching to Speerville Flour Mills’ product to make the pasta. He’s happiest when he sees young kids enjoy his locally-sourced dishes.

“For a lot of kids, [lunch] is one of their biggest meals of the day,” he said. “So if I can provide a little bit of good nutrition to these children, then I’m succeeding.”

Mills doesn’t only cook the produce, he also processes them into more “user-friendly” products like pizza sauce and flash-frozen broccolis. These are then re-sold through CANB to supply other schools. Profit from the sales helps subsidize low-cost meals for the Carrefour’s students. It’s currently the only institution processing the vegetables, but Mills is working with other schools to spread the practice.

Reinsborough said the system CANB is putting in place hadn’t existed before. It is at this system level that the private sector can have the largest influence.

“It needed all these partners to come together and now we’re seeing that they’re serving dozens and dozens of schools,” she said.

Eating and Supporting Local

Currently, only around 15 per cent of the food on New Brunswickers’ plates come from the province, making it the second-worst among Canada’s provinces. Food security advocates worry that the lack of locally sourced food could leave the province struggling if its international food supplies become vulnerable because of issues like climate change, says Jill Van Horne of Our Food Southeast New Brunswick.

It’s the thought that our food system is being controlled in a place that we are not,” she says. “So, when you’ve got that diverse local food system, you’re way less likely to go without something.”

Moncton grocery store Tomavo seeks to fill a gap in that system. Operations manager Amer Khaled and his wife, Samar Najarian, who owns the business, saw a lack of smaller stores that offer lower prices for quality fresh fruits and vegetables.

“So we said, if we offer healthy food for people for affordable prices, it might work,” he said. “If you notice, most of the healthy stuff are very expensive. People can’t afford it.”

Tomavo sources up to 18 per cent of its products from New Brunswick in the summer, with most of its 145 items coming from Canada when the seasons allow. Khaled plans to increase the number of local products from 22 items to 32 items in the future. However, because Tomavo also sells produce that isn’t available in Canada, it can only source up to 35 per cent of its products from New Brunswick.

Whatever local is available, we will have it here. But we can’t have local bananas, local pineapples, kiwis and mangoes,” he said.

Khaled says it’s important to eat local to support farmers as many seek to sell their farms amid succession challenges. Data from NBFSAN shows the number of farms in the province fell 90 per cent between 1950 and 2011.

The couple plans to open two more locations by next spring. Khaled hopes that with a larger business, he will be able to buy more from local farmers at a good value.

Khaled also has an arrangement with Verger Goguen Orchard in Cocagne where he plans to hire people, pay for the land and buy the seeds required for Goguen to grow apples for Tomavo.

Innovation and the Next Generation

As a largely rural province, New Brunswick faces challenges with the distribution and accessibility of healthy food, and the high cost of growing produce in the winter.

Currently, only eight per cent of the province’s vegetables are grown locally and only 11 per cent of potential farmland is being utilized. Laforge believes technology will be key in the future of the agriculture industry, citing Local By Atta’s vertical farm and Shediac Farms’ hot houses for growing produce year-round.

Laforge’s company, which sources all its products locally from around 30 farms, uses its online platform to help farmers test their products.

Local By Atta co-founder Jesse Howatt says it’s very important to show local food growing businesses are viable.

“I think the first thing that we’re trying to tackle and I think we’re doing successfully is we need to first show that leafy greens can be grown financially successfully,” says Howatt. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be growing it in New Brunswick. We need to be innovative to get to that point but I think we’re on the right track.”

In Memramcook, Verger Belliveau Orchard works to increase the amount of food it produces while ensuring that it doesn’t over-extend itself, project manager Guy Gautreau said. This is done, among other things, by adopting the most cost-efficient and productive way to grow apples.

Belliveau uses trellis-supported high-density orchards, a technique imported from Europe, to produce more apples on smaller pieces of land.

The farm signed up to be an observer on CANB’s board and recently adopted a donation policy that mostly favours causes related to food security and healthy eating.

Through non-profit group Semer dans la Vallee, Belliveau works with the Abbey-Landry School and the municipality to manage a community greenhouse. The farm donates around $3,000 a year in the form of cash, services and advice to the project. It’s now developing a curriculum for students around the project, while ensuring that it’s financially self-sufficient.

“We’re trying to make sure that there’s a good entrepreneurial component. We’re also hoping to identify student leaders that can benefit from a mentorship component,” Gautreau said.