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Me + NAIT = ? [Part 1 of?]

03.25.11

So what’s the deal with me and NAIT’s culinary arts program?

Some faculty members seriously committed to bringing in far more local food to the program approached me to facilitate. I am not being paid by them. I’m doing what I can because I think it’s the right thing to do. That’s it. But that’s about where the simplicity of the situation ends.

Surprisingly, this is a potentially complex challenge. The school has been trying on various fronts and failing. Why? Because [forgive some generalizations throughout] the food service industry supply chain and the seasonal/local food supply chain are not well connected.  Their needs differ. Industry tends to plan fixed menus for months at a time, with specific ingredients, and require suppliers to fill orders on demand. The seasonal, local food supply works more like: seasonal ingredient is available, want some? Come and get it.

So you have producers with fantastic product completely accessible to individual consumers at farmers’ markets, that are elusive to industry – a tad counter-intuitive. Seems the consumer’s willing to go get it, industry not so much. A small producer may have the best product around, but isn’t set up for [or want] distribution, and frankly needs to be on the farm farming, not driving their product around. So distribution is an industry problem. Not to say it’s the farmer’s problem – many are quite happy thank-you-very-much getting top dollar [sans trade discount or middle men] selling direct one day a week at a vibrant farmer’s market. Less headache driving product around, better margin,  more flexible consumer, more time to farm. I get it.

This leaves the industry in a weird position – they need specific things to meet the demands of their businesses, but the farms often don’t offer it exactly how they want or need it, or when they want or need it. And the relationship dies there. It’s too bad. The romantic notion of chef going to market to source what’s the most exciting seasonal item to put on the plate that day is good for the marketing department, but not the operations department. It’s far easier to order through a Sysco, get product in the size, quantity, and the day you want. Path of least resistance wins, local food objective fails. The good news with NAIT is they have some staff who are willing to effect some change, even if it means volunteering time to go pick up product at a local market to get the job done. Crazy idea that – chef going to market.

So for now, I’ve agreed to help them figure out what top-shelf local product is available, from whom, when. Plan is to meet with faculty in a month or two to discuss. I’ve also been asked to be involved with student tours of local farms, offering guidance with charcuterie [esp game], taking students foraging, and more. We’ll see how much of this is possible given my increasingly limited time.

More on this as things progress – just wanted to start on this topic as I know some folks [including producers] are curious. If you are a local producer that wants to supply to NAIT, send me an email.

9 Responses

  1. More local food procurement will come. No doubt about it. It’s just a matter of changing habits. And that’s time consuming. Compared to other continents, our food supply chain is too rigid and over regulated. On both ends, suppliers and demanders.

    Convenience is part of our DNA here in North America, which is as much a problem as the government’s heavy handedness in making it difficult for small producers to suceed.

  2. We are excited about the idea to be able to supply NAIT with our flour products and mixes. Good article Kevin.

    Trying to look at it objectively I think you touched on a key point. I think that the restaurant industry needs to become more flexible in how they do business. Maybe 1 huge cafeteria needs to become 5 small cafe’s all serving different menus (in a large institution like NAIT)? Maybe the menus need to become smaller to allow chefs greater ability to source local ingredients? I know that these suggestions are problematic in themselves, but something has to change eventually. I do not believe that this current setup is sustainable. I applaud NAIT for their foresight and for their desire to affect change.

    Getting a restaurant set up to allow the chef to source out better quality, local food is going to be key to the restaurant that wants to flourish in the future. I say this because the markets are getting better all the time. You are 100% correct when you talk about the farmer not wanting to get away from the market system. I can see that producers and consumers are becoming very content with the farmers market model of marketing and restaurants are going to need to catch up.

  3. Kirsten says:

    After you defined everything that constrains local food growers from supplying local dining establishments, I started to wonder if it’s possible? There are certainly examples of restaurants trying it but they make no bones about the fact that it’s a difficult row to hoe and requires an amazing committment from the restauranteur. Still, just because something is going to be difficult to acheive doesn’t mean it should be abandoned. I look forward to hearing how you’re getting on with it.

  4. Duncan Kinney says:

    Kevin, I think you have identified one of the greatest soft spots in the local food movement. The lack of distributors and middlemen to get this food out to the community that, for much of its caloric intake, depends on very advanced supply chain solutions like Sysco.

    Starting these supply chains, creating strategic alliances and driving innovation through these structures is going to be far more important to getting local food on people’s plates than all of the Farmer’s Markets in Edmonton.

    I participated in a Live Local First focus group a week ago and in that focus group I posed these questions to the table. What does Live Local First want to be when it grows up? Does it want to be a retail organic and local food delivery service or does it want be a distributor of local food to the widest available audience? And which approach would help it achieve its social enterprise objectives?

  5. Great article. I am glad they are starting. The first step is always the hardest, then after that, baby steps are normal. But, baby steps are important. This is a lot for you to do without reimbursement for your time. But, Like you, I would do it just because I think it is the right thing if I could do it and if it didn’t eat all of my spare time. The taking students foraging thing could easily be done by those already doing this – like Robert Rogers, etc. But, you will figure it all out. This is a wonderful invitation. Change is always hard. But, change is always eminent, too. Like John says – he will be happy to start with their flour. That would be a great step, and a fairly easy one for them which I am sure you have already thought of. Bravo to Chef Townsend for taking the first step by offering your name to others and extending this invitation to you.
    :)
    Valerie

  6. Mel says:

    Props to you for helping them out with a grassroots organizational change. It’s a long time coming, and I only pray this is one of many first steps – for NAIT, and for the rest of the food service industry as a whole.

  7. Kirsten says:

    If you haven’t come across it already, I regularly read The Farm and the City blog and I thought you might find this recent post of use http://thelinkery.com/blog/your-90-san-diego-restaurants/

  8. Mary Ellen says:

    Glad you are undertaking this, Those of us who have been trying for years to get things established are a bit worn out.
    We really need a local distributor like they have in Lethbridge. Any takers?
    Greens Eggs & Ham have supplied limited amounts to NAIT in the past. Problem is always that small producers who rely on seassons etc. have a difficult time supply things for a menu that starts before our veg season. Also, occasional large functions are impossible for small producers. We need planning time and it is rarely given.

  9. Josh Eulert says:

    Kevin, I know this is an older post, but… if you’re ever considering a career change or even just an expansion, you’ve just identified a massive business opportunity either as a broker or a distributor. Give it some serious thought.

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