Local food sellers faced with challenging, but growing, industry

If you had to find locally produced meat, baked goods, beauty products and solar panels in one place, where could you go?

The answer, strangely enough, is the Wesley Community Church in Pembroke, Ont. On the first Saturday of every month, the church is buzzing with activity as volunteers sort through food and other goods that will make their way to Barry’s Bay, Burnstown, and three other locations.

The church is the central hub of the Ottawa Valley Food Co-op, an organization that seeks to link hundreds of people to locally made products.

“We want to have healthy families, healthy communities, healthy finances – it all starts with our food and our farmers,” says Co-op coordinator Stanislas Rochat.


Rochat and other local food sellers in Ottawa are attempting to “shorten the chain” between consumers and their food. In the past few decades, Canada’s food system has become increasingly focused on using our farmland for exports, rather than producing food for our own consumption. To provide just one example, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), in 2010 Canada produced over $304 million worth of tomatoes to export, and then imported over more than $120 million of tomatoes the same fruit for our own consumption.

It’s a trend that Rochat, the Co-op, and other local food sellers in Ottawa are trying to counteract.

One of these sellers is Susan Jessup, owner of local food store Forty-Two Fine Foods in New Edinburgh.

“We as a country are not looking after our people with food,” she says.

“It’s disturbing because our food exports have quadrupled over the last while… It’s about the economy, the economics of food, the business – which doesn’t really have anything to do with feeding people.”\


Spurred on by her philosophy that we should try to eat local as often as we can, Jessup joined Savour Ottawa, a group of local food suppliers and distributors that promotes the year-round sale and consumption of local food products.

Jessup’s “guilt-free” take-out meals are made almost entirely of locally sourced products, including beef from Savour Ottawa member Dan O’Brien’s farm in Winchester.

“The only niche that the big players, so the Cargill’s of the world, could not compete in was local,” says O’Brien of his decision to enter the local beef industry five years ago.

“If I went with organic or I went with certified Angus or any other type of program… you just can’t compete. Except for the local. It all sort of fit together.”

O’Brien has seen the appeal of local food grow over the past five years, especially in the restaurant industry. On a few occasions he’s even had to ask Ottawa restaurants to remove his farm name from their menus when they haven’t bought his products.

“That tells you that the restauranteur sees value in [local food],” says O’Brien.

“Restaurants in particular see it as good business to be doing this, because they’re attuned to their clientele.”


But while there’s been indications for Savour Ottawa and the Ottawa Valley Food Co-op that awareness of eating local is growing, the industry is still facing challenges. O’Brien is currently entering his fifth year in the cattle industry, and might just be breaking making a profit for the first time in his business’s history.

The Ottawa Valley Food Co-op is facing similar growing pains, as only a quarter of the 450 people registered through its website are ordering on a regular basis. And Forty-Two Fine Foods isn’t exempt either; after three years in business and dozens of loyal customers, Jessup hasn’t been able to break even yet.

“We’re just trying to keep the doors open at this point,” she says.

While many might be aware of the environmental benefits of eating local, the price might be what’s keeping some customers away. For Jim McKeen, owner of the Glebe’s Metro grocery store, this hasn’t been a problem.

“We react to our customers – and that’s the thing about the Glebe. The Glebe is very vocal, so they have no issues telling you what they want, what they don’t want,” says McKeen.


In order to keep his customers happy, the best business decision McKeen made in the last seven years was to stock his shelves with more local products at the request of his customers.

“People are still paying a premium for local,” he says.

“Our market in the Glebe is such that they can afford that premium. So it’s profitable in our hands.” (Thoughts on why/how McKeen can do it, but the O’Briens and Jessups can’t?)

The preference for local food in the Glebe is something that the Ontario government is trying to replicate on a bigger scale. In October, Dalton McGuinty and the Liberal party introduced Bill 130, or the Local Food Act. In a press release, the Liberals challenged each Ontario family to direct 10 dollars of their local grocery spending towards local food, stating that this small change would generate $2.4 billion in annual revenue for the province, and create 10,000 new jobs. Last week, premier-designate Kathleen Wynne announced her support for the legislation.

While Jessup, Rochat, and O’Brien are still searching for those elusive profits, the one thing they all have in common, besides their preference for local food, is optimism.

“I think we’re at a point now where we’ve reached the critical mass needed in the population, and there’s enough people aware of what it implies to eat local… If they buy local they know that they’re really helping their communities.” says Rochat.

“It’s a matter of education, marketing, and planting a new habit in the population.”


42 Fine Foods Profile


Video, Photos, and Article co-produced by Kate Wilkinson and Kristina Partsinevelos.