by MIKE BEAUDIN
A research group trying to establish regional food hubs across Ontario has launched a survey to get a statistical look at the needs of all sectors of the food chain.
The Nourishing Communities research partnership is asking for input from local and regional food producers, processors, distributors, and food service procurers through the online survey.
Project researcher Phil Mount said to date the group has compiled case studies from information gathered through meetings and discussions but statistical data is required before the group can move forward.
The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) is paying for the survey.
“We proposed to do regional food hub feasibility studies but (the ministry) suggested a provincial survey first,” said Mount. “We want to go back to OMAFRA with strong communications.”
The research partnership is hopeful the survey results will show the province that regional hubs deserve government support.
Mount said their research indicates it would take three years of financial support before regional hubs can sustain themselves.
Food hubs manage the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution or marketing of locally and regionally produced food. They serve as a drop-off point for farms in a region and a pick-up point for distribution.
The Nourishing Communities project has been evolving since 2007, compiling research on food hubs of various sizes and shapes. In their most recent research they gathered information from more than 130 groups across the province.
“We heard from them (ministry officials) that we need a better picture in Ontario of what was actually happening,” said Mount.
He said food hubs in Ontario have all been self developed and self funded. They need funding and a support network to grow to their potential.
“Farmers don't have a clear sense of the market the food hub is producing for, and the hub can’t expand to warrant (farmers) increasing production,” said Mount. “We’ve been told a lot comes down to a lack of investment.”
He said food hubs would fit perfectly in the vision outlined by Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne who has called upon the agri-food industry to double and create 120,000 new jobs by 2020.
“I would say there is certainly more interest from OMAFRA. They clearly hear what’s happening on the ground around the province,” said Mount. “They have a local food committee. Five years ago this was unheard of.
“The Liberal government brought local food up to the top of visibility. The fact they got re-elected makes it clear to OMAFRA and others that this is a piece of the policy mandate they will have to continue paying attention to.”
Mount said food hubs are getting government support in many regions in the United States, especially New York State, because of the regional economic benefits they create.
“The United States is a decade ahead of us on this. Regional and state governments are throwing serious money at food hubs,” he said.
Regional hubs provide efficiencies of scale. For example, one truck can serve the transportation needs of a number of farmers in a region, said Mount.
The survey seeks to categorize respondents by sector and where they’re located in the province. It asks respondents about barriers, operating challenges, and where they see opportunities for growth.
Mount said they hope to get a strong response from across the province to get an accurate statistical look at the industry. He said the group plans to have the survey tabulated and a report written from it in June. BF