Canada’s most active not-for-profit food hub helps people buy local

Imagine your favourite local restaurant makes an amazing tomato sauce with fresh, local produce. You’re not the only one who loves it. Everyone does, to the point that dishes made with that sauce are by far the most popular items on the menu.

But how does the chef find 250 kilograms of local tomatoes, week after week?

It can be tricky to source local produce when farms are small, as many farms are. One farmer may have 50 kilograms of tomatoes, while another has 70, a third has 40 and a fourth has 90. The chef could drive around to all four farms, or each of the four farmers could deliver to the restaurant. Neither plan is very efficient.

That’s where Two Rivers Food Hub in Lanark County, Ontario, comes in. Among many other services, it consolidates small shipments of produce from a range of farmers into one stream, making it easier for small farms to sell to big commercial customers and for those companies to buy local.

If that was all Two Rivers did, it would be pretty useful, but that’s just one of the many services the new Lanark County facility provides. “We’re the most active of the not-for-profit hubs,” says Two Rivers general manager Bruce Enloe.

So what is a food hub, exactly? In a nutshell, it provides a bridge between local food producers (such as farmers and processors) and buyers (such as stores and consumers), in all sorts of ways. Food hubs have been evolving in the United States for several decades, but they’re just starting to gain a toehold in Canada.

Two Rivers opened in March 2015, in part of an 800,000-square-foot complex that once housed almost 3,000 people with physical and mental disabilities. When the Rideau Regional Centre closed in 2009, the provincial government left everything behind, including an industrial kitchen that once prepared almost 10,000 meals a day.

Today, producers rent access to that kitchen around the clock to produce everything from salsa and pickles to gluten-free bread and mustard-infused beer (yes, you read that last one right). Because the kitchens are licensed and inspected, the resulting products can be sold in a wider range of retail outlets than products made in a home kitchen. The size of the kitchen also means producers can achieve economies of scale.

In 2016, the food hub is also rolling out a local food basket program. Subscribers can sign up to receive a weekly basket of vegetables, fruit and other local products. So far, 24 producers are on board, and Enloe aims to attract 100 subscribers.

It all sounds like quite enough work for the hub’s two full-time and two part-time employees, but the centre also hosts workshops for producers, rents out food storage facilities, and provides vegetable washing, grading and packaging stations. The place really is, well, a hub of activity. “It’s very exciting, when you first walk in,” says Enloe.

Photo courtesy of the Two Rivers Food Hub.