From Farm to Table to Sustainability

By Gregory Furgala

The local food movement sparked a boom of pastoral-chic restaurants that introduced city dwellers to meat raised and produce grown at nearby farms. In what seemed like an overnight phenomenon, Canadian diners clamoured for whey-fed pork chops, grass-fed steak and foraged spring onions from towns they recognized, not just pork, beef and scallions from wherever. Diners were willing to pay a premium too, and restaurateurs wisely capitalized on the demand.

Darcy MacDonnell was an early adopter of the trend. Since opening Farmhouse Tavern in 2012, he has stuck to an uncompromisingly local menu made up exclusively of Ontario ingredients, wine and beer. It wasn’t just about making a buck, though. For MacDonnell, who grew up in Alexandria, a hamlet in rural Ontario, it was about bringing his rural roots into the city.

“I wanted to showcase people I knew,” says MacDonnell. “I wanted to showcase Ontario, and entrepreneurs that started a winery on a small plot of land, and just support those farmers and growers.”

It’s a familiar impulse: help the people you know. But it’s one usually lost on a balance sheet — at least it is on most. In 1994, British author and entrepreneur John Elkington coined the term “triple bottom line,” a new metric that expands the traditional profit motive of any given business into three equal parts. In addition to profitability, it includes the environmental and social result of any given business. It’s a readjustment of how we measure any given business’s success, one that local food, with its practical distance from factory farms and market demand, fits well — at least it seems to.

Local Issues

Bruce McAdams, an assistant professor at Guelph University’s School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management, says there’s definitely a triple bottom line benefit to local food, but it’s not a sure thing. “We look at local food as being sustainable,” says McAdams. “We think about it in restaurants as a huge part of sustainability. It is a part of it, but I believe it’s a small part.”

“Most scholars studying the local food movement say the biggest gain for organizations in in supporting that societal aspect of the triple bottom line. So, helping the community by supporting local farmers by purchasing local products,” says McAdams. “That’s where the biggest benefit is.”

The environmental side is less certain. In 2017, Seth Wynes, a PhD candidate at UBC, published an analysis of different green actions, telling the CBC that, “In terms of emissions, [buying local] just isn’t a big deal.” McAdams theorizes that it could actually be worse on the environment, noting that since global food systems have become extremely efficient, transport and delivery trucks loaded with onions might, on a per onion basis, pollute less than a farmer driving into to town to drop off a single crate. The equation might break the other way, but ultimately, a restaurateur looking to increase their environmental bottom line should focus on things like low-flush toilets, energy efficient light bulbs and reducing waste. They’re sure things; local food isn’t.

Moreover, says McAdams, locally-sourced ingredients typically cost more than conventionally sourced ingredients. For business owners working on tight margins — that is, most restaurant operators — eating those costs or passing them onto their customers are both uncomfortable decisions. The problem is compounded with issues of availability, which especially in Canada makes accessing good local fare difficult year-round. The end run around that problem is canning, preserving and freezing, which have their own added costs.

For the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, though, that can be a value add.

Local Food, Industrial Scale

Nearly a decade ago, Richard Willett, MTCC’s vice president of food and beverage, started reforming the centre’s culinary program, refocusing its efforts on local food, which elicited a bit of fear, says Willett. When the MTCC is capacity, it can serve around 8,000 to 10,000 in a day. It wasn’t just a question of scaling up; that quantity has a quality all of its own. It was a massive project, and it wasn’t a slick transition, either.

“Through the process, it was about walking, falling down a little bit, stumbling in some cases, and getting back up,” says Willett. But he continued to commit resources to it, even hiring a sustainability officer to help educate Willett and his staff, forge relationships with local farmers and assist with the infrastructure upgrades to preserve, cure and can meat and produce for colder months. It was no small investment of time, labour and resources. But it worked.

“Today the operation is very different than it was eight years ago,” says Willett. By way of example, he explains how MTCC chefs recently slaughtered two pigs purchased last spring. Over the summer, they had grown to 200 pounds apiece, and after being butchered, gave the MTCC fantastic, homemade charcuterie. It tells a story, is local, is an educational component, says Willett. A lot of that is lost in the bulk purchasing process. And despite stumbling out of the gate, the effort has paid off.

“There has been a return on investment for us. Initially, there were a lot of scratching heads. ‘Is this going to work?’ Not everyone was convinced that there were economic benefits for the organization. But a few years later, absolutely it’s been financially rewarding for us,” says Willett. The MTCC’s program is on a scale that’s magnitudes greater than Farmhouse Tavern’s, with a corresponding difference in investment, but it can work. The financial benefits can accrue alongside the social benefits as people actively look to dine on local produce.

Risk and Reward

Local food isn’t an automatic triple bottom line panacea. Developing a restaurant or foodservice operation built on local food and sustainable principles takes money and effort.

“My opinion is guarded, especially from the environment point of view. You need to get as much information as you can from your supplier and be willing to do the legwork if in fact you’re ordering and using of local product is environmentally friendly,” says McAdams. “You have to be willing to work a little harder and be more on top of local food when you’re working with it, as opposed to of just picking up your phone and ordering from one of the large distributors.”

Do that, though, and a restaurateur can genuinely make good on all three bottom lines, with the social and environmental pillars driving the financial one. The mistake, really, is thinking it’s an entirely new concept.

“We always knew our neighbours,” says MacDonnell. “We’d maybe trade half a cow for pasture rental, or straw or hay. There was bartering between neighbouring farmers, and that idea of community support for each other. We’d help you get your profit and you’d help us get ours.”

It takes a little more work, but there’s a little more payoff. In fact, there’s three of them.