“Highly effective and Potent”: Massive Edmonton grocery consumers band collectively to buy domestically

Large institutions, from hospitals and colleges to the Edmonton Convention Center, are looking for ways to increase their local grocery purchases.

According to a working group called Alberta Flavor, the answer lies in a coordinated approach between manufacturers, retailers and the institutions that buy meat, vegetables and other foods in bulk.

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 catering establishments.

“If you want to grow local groceries within the larger food system, institutional sourcing is a really powerful and effective way to do it,” said Mary Beckie, a researcher at the University of Alberta.

Alberta Flavor partners include Northlands, NAIT, the University of Alberta, Alberta Health Services and the Edmonton Convention Center.

Beckie’s research on the effects of Alberta Flavor 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 adequate local supplies.

The group also includes large traders who act as intermediaries between farmers and buyers, Beckie said in a recent interview with CBC.

“If you don’t have these distributors on board, there will be a problem with the institutions that access the funds.”

Everyone knew you could buy Alberta beef. They didn’t always know they could get Alberta sugar, Alberta bread, or canola oil.– Jessie Radies, Nordland

NAIT purchases approximately $ 3 million worth of groceries each year. Between 25 and 30 percent is sourced locally, said Kim Allen, deputy head of supply chain management at NAIT.

“We like to integrate into the community we live in,” said Allen. “Part of that is helping local food.”

But buying local groceries on such a large scale is a challenge, Allen said, and every institution operates differently.

Knowing that, Alberta Flavor focused on sharing ideas and solutions, said Jessie Radies, Northlands director of agriculture.

Mary Beckie (left) and Jessie Radies (right) are members of Alberta Flavor, a group that encourages more local shopping at institutions. (Josee St-Onge / CBC)

“It may not be a problem that you are working collaboratively to solve, but it could be someone else in this group who solved it for your organization,” said Radies.

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

Part of Alberta Flavor’s approach has been to familiarize shoppers with what foods are available in Alberta.

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

The group also worked with major distribution companies who stepped up their local purchasing and began to identify local foods in their catalogs.

Alberta Flavor is now looking to shift its focus to improving the supply chain and closing some of the gaps between farmer and buyer.

The group has applied for provincial and federal funding to launch a pilot that would include hiring a care coordinator to work with institutions, Beckie said.

“There is a pull-through effect along the entire supply chain if you can increase demand.”

The institutions’ sizable purchasing power also allows them to push for more sustainable practices, including studying how food is grown and packaged, Allen said.

“Big institutions like us, we have more say in distributors,” said Allen. “In this way we can influence behavior.”

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