For steady flow of fresh food, Toronto food agencies look to the power of bulk buying

Agencies that give food to vulnerable Torontonians are turning to an online platform to let them access food at wholesale prices.

FoodReach project lets food banks, shelters and nutrition programs access wholesale prices

FoodReach is a 2-year-old project that helps food banks, drop-ins and shelters aggregate their food purchases so they can get better prices. (FoodReach/Facebook)

Every day, volunteers and employees from GTA shelters, food banks and nutrition programs fan out across the city to buy food for their programs.

Each agency drives to the store, compares prices, files receipts, and loads and unloads — alone.

Alvin Rebick, the community engagement and project lead at FoodReach, wants them to change their ways.

"Right now most purchasing is being done randomly," he told CBC Toronto.

"Over $40 million a year is spent on food in the non-profit sector in Toronto alone, and most of it is being spent at grocery stores. That's not a practical way to purchase food."

FoodReach, a two-year old project that runs under the umbrella of the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC), gives Toronto's food agencies access to wholesale prices on fresh foods via an online portal.

Remedy for 'piecemeal' purchasing

Working with Toronto Public Health and serving clients like school nutrition programs as well as smaller shelters and drop-ins, FoodReach lets agencies log in, place an order, and have food delivered to their door.

Even the smallest programs are able to participate, Rebick said — the minimum order is only $50. 

"It's food sovereignty as well as food security," he said. "There's more choice."

The idea grew out of PARC's Community Food Flow project, which looked at ways to improve food procurement for Toronto's 300-plus food agencies.

FoodReach hosts training for chefs working at food agencies. Pictured is a healthy cooking workshop in May, 2017. (FoodReach/Facebook)

Purchasing at the agencies tended to be "piecemeal" and often saw social workers and the executive directors of programs putting their duties aside to head to the shops, said a 2014 report from the Food Flow Project.

"These are problems of collaboration and aggregation; they can be met with collaborative solutions," it went on.

In 2015, FoodReach was born, and in the two years since, they've doubled their sales, said Rebick, who said the model is both "innovative" and "doable." 

Concept continues to grow

Early 2018 will bring more changes, with a re-tooled portal being launched that helps the project control prices even more.

"Now the orders come to us and we look at the best pricing and FoodReach chooses the vendor," rather than just connecting agencies to vendors, said Rebick.  

Meanwhile, other food banks and agencies in the GTA haven taken note.

Lifecorps Food Share, which collects food donations and distributes them to agencies in places like Markham and Georgina, Ont., is "strongly considering" working with FoodReach to bring a more steady flow of fresh food to their clients.

"They've connected the non-profit industry with the for-profit industry," said executive director Alex Bilotta.

Bilotta said his organization wants to begin a wholesale grocery program that helps their clients get good deals on dairy, produce and meat. 

"This will make it easier, and for those who are challenged with transportation we can deliver it right to their door," he said.

Lifecorps, which plans to change its name to the Food Bank of York Region next year, has completed a feasibility study on doing a non-profit grocery program but still needs to write a business plan and secure funding.

"We want a healthy community. Food banks have evolved," Bilotta said.