How much goat cheese did you say you needed? Serving up the best local food for 2000 people

If you read the newspaper, listen to the news, eat in restaurants, or peruse the cookbooks in your bookstore, you may have noticed a bit of a local food revolution going on. Maybe it’s less of a revolution and more of a revival, because eating locally by purchasing food from farmers nearby, and respecting the rhythms of the seasons is how we used to eat. More than a trend, it’s a widespread realization that we have moved away from a natural, logical way of feeding ourselves that works. My prediction? The local food “movement” won’t be moving anytime soon.

Serving up the best local food for large events and conferences

The paradigm shifted in a big way when, in addition to individuals and small establishments buying local, there was buzz about large organizations like hospitals and universities doing the same. It was only a matter of time before the convention and conference centres stepped up to the challenge, and with the buying power large companies have, these changes mean major economic benefits to our farmers and precious farmland.

You may think that being a locavore is an idealistic step back into a long since disappeared world of raising chickens, cooking from scratch, and preserving the harvest, but brushing local food off as a quaint trend becomes a little trickier when large corporations are willing to change the entire culture of their organizations to make it happen.

It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind. I arrived at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre last October in the newly-minted position of Local food Procurement Officer and was handed the task of bringing fresh, local food into the centre, changing the way we supply our kitchens, and ultimately the food we serve to millions (yes, millions) of guests annually. I realized right away that while we wanted to support our farmers, our daily motivation as a company is to provide a great event experience, for a great value. As I rolled up my sleeves and prepared to get to work, the equation played over in my head again and again: buy Ontario food, create innovative menus, serve up  stellar meals to thousands of people daily, on time, and on budget, consistently. Needless to say, while I stepped in with confidence, I was also wondering, can it truly be done?

As a glass-half-full kind of person, I believe that any roadblock can be managed or completely broken down with the right approach, but I’m also a realist. This is Ontario after all, so I accept our short growing season. I also know that local food is out there, but isn’t always accessible on the scale needed to supply events that can mean lunches for 10,000 people.  I dream of all the delicacies available: free-range eggs, pastured meat, artisanal cheeses, maple syrup, succulent Lake Huron Whitefish, and am constantly seeking ways to get them on our plates. Another truth: trying to swim upstream and grow crops ill-suited to our cold climate by creating artificial environments can be expensive.

The easiest and most cost-effective way to serve fresh local food hinges on dynamic menus that change with the seasons. We enjoy our seemingly bottomless bounty of heirloom tomatoes for salads served in August, then shift to plentiful butternut squash and local blue cheese in October.

It’s been encouraging to see that while price is a consideration, our clients are more concerned than ever about hosting a green, sustainable event, and buying local food is another way to lessen environmental impacts. Does it cost more to serve local Ontario food? Perhaps. We can say local, ethically produced food is expensive, or we could say that mass-produced imported goods are cheap. We can look solely at the bottom line, or view buying local as an investment.  We can pay now, or we can pay later. From this perspective, the cost of local food is just about where it should be.

My formula for buying and eating local:

  1. Find out what is in season and make sure the bulk (75 to 80 per cent) of what you buy is local and seasonal. This can include canned, frozen, and preserved items, as well as all your meat, fish, eggs, and dairy.
  2. Add 10 to 15 per cent local food grown in greenhouses and hothouses. Go ahead and enjoy some cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. They will add life to winter storage vegetables and fruit.
  3. Add five to 10 per cent non-local items. Unless you’re a hard-core locavore, this is where you add your coffee, chocolate, organic cane sugar, a few fair-trade bananas, and anything else to make your menus interesting and diverse.

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