Concerns about food insecurity create opportunities for local food movement

Feature Story

| CAITLIN MACDOUGALL

By Easter, they had sold all of the 500 weekly basket subscriptions, and a waiting list was growing, exclaimed Frédéric Thériault from La Ferme Coopérative Tourne-Sol. The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organic baskets are offered for 22 weeks, from early June to October, from the farm, situated in Les Cèdres, Quebec. Along with some biweekly subscriptions, the cooperative, which was started by five Macdonald Campus graduates in 2004, feeds 720 families a year.

Food insecurity

“Usually, we sell the last baskets at the beginning of the season. This year, with the concerns about food insecurity, we have seen a big increase in demand for our baskets, but also for our seed orders,” added Thériault, BSc(AgEnvSc)’04, MSc’08. “People want to buy local; they want to start gardening. There is fear about where their food will come from; even if there will not be a food shortage, it is a concern.”

This fear is linked to concerns about COVID-19, and the social distancing and travel restrictions that have been implemented to counter the pandemic. It has increased demand for local products, especially with Quebec’s support of local industry via Le Panier Bleu, an online platform to connect consumers and Quebec businesses.

For veteran Macdonald Horticulture Research Centre Coordinator Mike Bleho, DipAg’81, the food insecurity that has been felt in recent weeks will “lead to more local food demand and sales.” With growing media attention, “this will lead to more people discovering our market,” Bleho stated.

Increased demand

“A big portion of what we grow goes to McGill cafeterias downtown during the school year. I don’t think this will change too much unless the chefs start to have trouble ordering from their regular suppliers (which might happen),” explained Bleho.

In May, the Mac Market sells vegetable transplants to home gardeners. “I think this business will grow for us too,” speculated Bleho.

Increased demand has meant more stress and more logistical planning for Ferme Tourne-Sol. “We are lucky; we have a good stable workforce, but we want to keep them safe and healthy,” Thériault said.

Lufa Farms co-founder Lauren Rathmell, BSc’10, has been “working with suppliers constantly to try to ensure we can meet our customers’ demand.” They have also seen increased demand, with new customers being waitlisted and larger volumes ordered per customer. The enterprise, which feeds 4,000 people per day, year-round, has really focused on serving their existing customers first, also known as Lufavores.

 Challenges for producers

While increased demand for produce and vegetable transplants will be good for business, Bleho described how social distancing guidelines also complicate how the teams will work: “It will take longer to do all of our various tasks. It will take more staff just to operate.”

An additional challenge is that “the whole supply chain of materials needed to put the crops in the ground will be impacted,” with many horticultural machinery suppliers operating out of Europe. “Parts are not moving yet; we are already seeing shortages and delays in some products,” added Bleho.

“We are a university enterprise and as such have certain advantages/constraints that others might not have,” Bleho qualified. Despite this, the other producers contacted echoed his concerns.

“We will be purchasing 11,000 boxes, and will increase deliveries. Normally, our clients select their vegetables themselves from pick-up points,” explained Thériault. The prepackaged baskets will mean less contact and more safety, but also more costs and a larger environmental impact, something that the farm tries to reduce as much as possible. They will also close their pick-your-own garden at the farm.

Rathmell described similar challenges with logistics, concerns about labour, and daily changes. “We have done a lot of communication with our Lufavores. We want to keep them up to date about the measures we’re taking to ensure food safety, to practice social distancing, and changes to pick-up or delivery methods.”

The emphasis on local food is the cornerstone of the Lufa Farms model. The business’s fourth Montreal-area rooftop greenhouse will be complete later this year, and will be the largest of its kind globally.

Future opportunities

Whether the increased demand leads to positive long-term effects on local producers and the economy is yet to be determined. “Producers will need to build relationships with our clientele and give them a great experience. I hope that this leads to more public awakening around the environmental movement and buying local,” concluded Thériault positively.

“No one really knows where things will go in future. When you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to know if this will lead to long-term change. But I’m hopeful,” Rathmell added.

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