‘Powerful and potent’: Big Edmonton food buyers team up to buy local

Working group taps into institutions’ large purchasing power to influence supply chain

Alberta Flavour found that some food purchasers didn’t know which local products were available in the province. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

Large institutions, from hospitals and colleges to the Edmonton Convention Centre, are looking at ways to boost their purchases of local food products.

The answer, according to a working group called Alberta Flavour, lies in a coordinated approach between producers, distributors and the institutions that purchase meat, vegetables and other food items in large quantities.

The working group has been meeting for about three years to increase the amount of locally-produced food purchased by colleges, universities and other large institutions with food-service operations.

“If you do want to scale up local food within the larger food system, institutional procurement is a really powerful and potent way to do that,” said University of Alberta researcher Mary Beckie. 

Partners in Alberta Flavour include Northlands, NAIT, the University of Alberta, Alberta Health Services and the Edmonton Convention Centre, among others.

Beckie’s research on the impact of Alberta Flavour was commissioned by the group and published in Canadian Food Studies in January.

She found that institutions benefited from sharing their solutions to common problems, such as finding enough local supply. 

The group also included large distributors, as they act as an intermediary between farmers and purchasers, Beckie told CBC in a recent interview. 

“If you don’t have those distributors on board there’s going to be a problem with institutions accessing the amount.”

Everybody knew that they could buy Alberta beef. They didn’t always know that they could get Alberta sugar, or Alberta bread or canola oil.- Jessie Radies, Northlands

NAIT purchases around $3 million worth of food each year. Between 25 and 30 per cent is sourced locally, said Kim Allen, NAIT’s assistant manager of supply-chain management.

“We like to incorporate ourselves into the community that we are living in,” Allen said. “Supporting local food is part of that.”

But purchasing local food on such a large scale is a challenge, Allen said, and each institution operates differently. 

Knowing that, Alberta Flavour focused on exchanging ideas and solutions, said Jessie Radies, Northlands’ director of agriculture.

Mary Beckie (left) and Jessie Radies (right) are members of Alberta Flavour, a group that fosters more local purchasing from institutions. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

“It may not be a problem that you work collaboratively to solve, but there may be someone else in that group that has solved it for their organization,” Radies said.

“We really use the knowledge within the group to help others advance their purchasing in a way that makes sense for their organization.”

Part of Alberta Flavour’s approach was to familiarize purchasers with which foods are available in Alberta.

“Everybody knew that they could buy Alberta beef,” Radies said. “They didn’t always know that they could get Alberta sugar, or Alberta bread, or canola oil that came from Alberta.”

The group also worked with large distribution companies, which increased their local purchasing and started identifying local food in their catalogues.

Alberta Flavour now wants to shift its focus to improving the supply chain, and filling some of the gaps between farmer and purchaser.

The group has applied for provincial and federal funding in order to launch a pilot project, which would include hiring a supply coordinator to work with institutions, said Beckie.

“It’s a pull-through effect all along the supply chain when you can increase demand.”

The significant purchasing power of institutions also enables them to push for more sustainable practices, including looking at how food is grown and packaged, Allen said.

“Large institutions like us, we have more of a voice with distributors,” Allen said. “We can influence behaviour in that way.”

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