Businesswomen promote local food in the wake of COVID

·5 min read

Douglas – During the height of the first wave of the COVID pandemic, it was not uncommon to see grocery shelves once stocked with an abundance of food suddenly near empty and signs posted throughout local stores notifying customers of limits placed on how many items could be purchased.

The sudden realization of potential of food shortages, combined with the knowledge that hundreds of meat plant workers across Canada were directly or indirectly exposed to COVID, brought three local businesswomen together with a common goal.

Their goal is to establish a commercial kitchen where local food can be prepared for the residents of Renfrew County and if successful, create an opportunity for local producers to export their products beyond the county borders.

Heather MacMillan, Tiffany Smiley and Marie-Josée Lévesque are the driving force behind The Kitchen Link, a concept they hope will soon become a shared-use licensed kitchen in Renfrew County. Along with establishing the kitchen, the site would help build regional economic capacity for Renfrew County food producers and processors.

The COVID pandemic has raised the general population’s interest in buying local, including food. Food security is also a concern for many, creating strong demand in the Ottawa Valley for farm-grown and locally-produced foods. Unfortunately, it has also shown there are many limitations in the existing processing capacity of Renfrew County’s local agri-food ecosystem.

Heather MacMillan, owner of Little Trickle Farmand Heather’s Hearth, said the inability for local producers access to a commercial kitchen limits their ability to expand their current customer base.

“If we are selling at the farm gate or farmers markets we don’t need to have a commercial kitchen because we are talking directly to our customers,” she said. “What many people don’t realize is that if we want to sell to a local store or to a wholesaler, the food must be prepared in a commercial kitchen.”

One of the recurring themes she hears from local retailers anxious to carry local products, including her classic sourdough bread, is the inability to offer local prepared items.

“I have local stores asking to carry my bread but unfortunately, I have no ability to sell it to them, ” she said.

Ms. Smiley, who left the big city and moved her family to the Ottawa Valley in 2012, launched Urban Valley Farm and developed a good customer base with her homemade pickles and red pepper jelly. Despite adopting the pace of Valley life, she was surprised to learn the lack of licensed cooking facilities for entrepreneurs such as herself and her two partners.

“We believe that food producers and small-scale food processors in this area will benefit from having access to a licensed facility where they can scale-up their production to develop new markets” she said. “It would allow ourselves and other producers to sell to local stores and restaurants, or even larger customer bases like grocery stores or export markets”.

It is precisely this dilemma that drew Marie-Josée Levesque to team up with her two female partners and take the first step to establishing a commercial kitchen to meet the growing demand for locally prepared food.

“Building and outfitting a licensed commercial kitchen is out of reach for most, unless you have already grown to a larger scale,” Ms. Levesque said. “This project is designed to break the catch-22 cycle and help local businesses thrive.”

Community Feedback Needed

The women understand taking on a venture of this type requires not only a committed customer base, but also community partners and input.

It is for that reason they have been working with the County of Renfrew’s Agricultural Economic Development Committee and the committee’s chair, Jennifer Doelman is encouraged by what she has seen so far.

“There is definitely a need for this type of project in the county and these three women have the passion and energy to see this project succeed from start to finish,” Mrs. Doelman said. “They all bring experience and each has a unique set of skills to turn this vision into reality.”

Ms. Levesque said they are ready to launch a countywide survey that seeks input from all areas and all sectors to determine the best way to move forward.

“We are starting with a ‘Call to Action’,” Ms. Levesque said. “We would like to invite all food producers and small-scale food processors in Renfrew County to participate in a short survey. We’ll use this survey to gauge the level of interest among agri-food players for a shared-use commercial kitchen. This is the first step to conducting a feasibility study.”

The group will be working with the County of Renfrew’s Economic Development Department, and one of the first steps is sending the survey to all Taste of the Valley vendors.

Along with county staff, they have garnered support from both the Renfrew County Federation of Agriculture and the Renfrew Local 330 group of the National Farmers Union (NFU). Both organizations will distribute the survey link to their memberships.

Marshall Buchannan, president of the local NFU and co-owner of Ottawa Valley Farm to Fork, a Scotch Bush farm that specializes in gourmet foods, fresh produce and farm-raised meats, is encouraged by the initiative.

“Value-added processing has been completely underserviced in terms of economic development in Renfrew County, Mr. Buchannan said. “We have such a strong agricultural base and yet we don’t get the boost to our local economy because there is minimal food processing in Renfrew County. We have the primary producers but not the secondary businesses that transform raw ingredients into gourmet and value-added foods. This is wealth and job creation we are missing.”

When asked why these three busy entrepreneurs and mothers decided to take on an additional and time-consuming project, Ms. Levesque said all three agreed it was something that had to be done, and the time was now.

“We saw an opportunity to fill a community need, so we decided to volunteer our time and expertise to spearhead the creation of a shared resource. We believe a community is stronger together.”

The survey can be accessed online at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/VKM7RFC

Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader