Customers now receive a list of local items along with the origin of each product and profiles of the producers.
Like Loblaw, Crawford said his team has traveled around the province educating growers and processors about what it takes to work with a large distributor, from food safety and traceability to consistency in packaging.
“Last fall we got phone calls from farmers driving down Highway 401 with a load of peppers asking if we wanted them, could they drop them off,” said Cindy Palmer, who oversees fresh produce, dairy and local Ontario products for Gordon Food Service.
“They’re excited about it, but they have no clue how to do business with us,” Palmer said.
With 60,000 pieces being shipped out and received nightly, Crawford said it’s hard to make room for a farmer with 15 to 20 cases.
To solve that problem, Gordon Food Service now works with distributor Cohn Farms in Bradford to consolidate loads from a number of growers.
There have been other successes, Palmer said.
Gordon has switched all its apple orders from Washington to Ontario-grown, and salesmen now automatically fill orders with local produce in season when the price and quality are right.
Palmer said some customers are overwhelmed by the thought of putting together an all-local recipe.
“We’re getting them to focus on one seasonal item, perhaps a beautiful chioggia beet, and make it the star of the plate without being über-concerned about everything on that plate being local,” she said.
Marketing local products year-round and treating them as a category, rather than as individual items, would help take local to the next level, Crawford said.
“It’s going to take time, but as we increase volumes it’s going to make better efficiencies and it’s going to be good for everybody,” he said.