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New funding for farmers collaborating under one digital roof

An online marketplace for farmers has started growing in Ontario. Its roots took hold five years ago in St. Agatha, thanks to Theresa Schumilas, founding director of Open Food Network Canada.

Schumilas has been a farmer most of her life, she also studied sustainable food systems at Wilfrid Laurier University, she came upon Open Food Network during her studies, which at the time only operated in the UK and Australia. With the help of Laurier’s Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, she began operating the not-for-profit in Canada.

Open Food Network Canada is a digital platform designed to help communities create and coordinate local food initiatives as well as secure access to sustainably produced food.

“We have about 800 producers who are on the platform. There’s a very large food hub here [in Waterloo Region] called Bailey’s local foods and they sell on the open food network platform – they have probably 80 to 85 different farmers who supply that hub, and almost all of them would be from around here. So there is a pretty big hub in this area that local farmers sell through,” said Schumilas.

“It’s hard for a  farm to just have their own online store. Well, it’s easy to have a store, but what we hear from farmers all the time is, ‘OK, I have a store and now nothing’s happening.’ Well, that’s because cyberspace is actually a really busy space right now, so it’s not likely that anybody’s going to find you. We try to help people link together into marketplaces because consumers still want a more of a one-stop shop experience – they still want to go to one place, even though it’s an online place, order from multiple suppliers at once, and pick up that order in one place, or get it all delivered together instead of visiting 10 or 12 separate farms. Just having a farm store doesn’t really get you to that. For us, the important thing is linking these into marketplaces,” she explained.

To help the organization with its efforts, the federal government last month pledged $71,000 for Open Food Network Canada under the Local Food Infrastructure Fund (LFIF), a $50-million program aimed at community-based, not-for-profit organizations that are helping to reduce food insecurity.

The funding will support updates to Open Food Network Canada’s digital platform by adding new features to make food more affordable, adequate, available and accessible to food insecure populations.

“The goal going forward is to increase the amount of food that’s accessible over what it currently is in these areas, but also to increase local food that’s available. So, in that sense, to also improve livelihood of small-scale farmers and manufacturers, food processors, etc,” said Schumilas

It’s a key piece of enhancing food security, says Kitchener-Conestoga MP Tim Louis.

“COVID-19 has intensified food insecurity of the most vulnerable people, but it is also having an impact on the operation of organizations working to improve food security. [The] investment will help Open Food Network Canada reach people and communities in Kitchener-Conestoga and across Canada. Not only are we supporting the Canadians who rely on these programs, but we are supporting our local heroes working tirelessly to address food insecurity,” he said.

“This is great news for Open Food Network Canada, and the community food enterprises that we support across the country. During the COVID-19 crisis, communities across Canada have used the Open Food Network platform to coordinate agile and responsive community food projects that have helped to secure regional food security in a time of widespread supply chain disruption. With this infusion of new funding from LFIF, we’ll be able to develop a new suite of platform features and short supply chain programs tailored to the needs of food-insecure Canadians across the country,” said David Thomas, projects manager at Open Food Network Canada.

Schumilas currently runs Garden Party Flower Farm, which began operating in 1990 but changed its name and concept in 2018 to focus on cut flowers. The flower farm uses Open Food Network to connect with other flower farms and sell all in one digital place. The platform enables her to connect with designers around Toronto, who are constantly needing new inventory. She noted that since using the platform, it has quadrupled her sales.

“I came at all this from an environmental perspective, and the idea that food is a unique way to accomplish environmental change, whether it’s greenhouse gas reductions or improving water quality – that was my initial motivation, and I was not a technically oriented person at all. So I didn’t come at this from a technical developer background – for me, I had been doing my doctoral research in China, and looking at local food systems there, and I was totally blown away by how digitized the systems were. What we would call peasant farmers were using handheld mobile devices to not just market food but to help them manage their crops. We were not doing that at all – we’re working on paper –  so that was my initial question, why aren’t we digitizing like other people are?” said Schumilas.

Online platforms for food have seen an increase in sales since the pandemic started, and many farmers have been happy to have an online platform to sell on that collaborates with other farmers since produce can vary week by week, said Schumilas, adding that she and the team of volunteers at Open Food Network Canada are eager to see it expand further across the country.

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