Food co-op provides more opportunities

Duane Hicks

District farmers and other producers of local goods have an outlet to sell their products within the region using the Cloverbelt Local Food Co-op.
Cloverbelt is the first and only online local food co-op in Northwestern Ontario which connects consumers with local farmers through a seamless online shopping and distribution system that currently serves Dryden, Ignace, Upsala, and Sioux Lookout.
Formed in August, 2013 from an existing food box program in Dryden, the non-profit group now offers 300 different products from 50-plus producers to nearly 520 members via its website
“We had over 85 members before we launched our first order-cycle on Dec. 2, 2013, so we are just past our first year,” Cloverbelt president Jen Springett told a small group of producers Thursday afternoon at La Place Rendez-Vous.
“At that stage, when customers were signing up, we didn’t actually have a website for them to see,” she noted.
“So they were purchasing memberships just thinking that we were going to create a website and at some point they’d be able to shop from it.
“So that was a pretty strong starting point for us considering our feasibility study suggested that 130 people would be a sustainable level for us to be at,” Springett added.
“We were almost there before we got our website up and running.”
The co-op runs year-round every week. Online shopping is open from Saturday at 2 p.m. until Monday at 10 a.m., after which time the producers can start harvesting, baking, or otherwise getting their orders ready for delivery.
The goods then are picked up by Tuesday afternoons and delivered to the hubs in Dryden, Ignace, Upsala, and Sioux Lookout, where the goods are sorted by volunteers and picked up by consumers.
The way the co-op works is as follows:
Producers, which may include farmers, gardeners, cooks, bakers, crafters, foragers, and hobbyists based in Northwestern Ontario who are looking for a means to sell their goods, can join the co-op by paying a lifetime membership fee of $50.
To join, they go online to and pay their fee.
Then they can sell their goods through the site.
The co-op benefits the producer in that it provides a ready-made marketplace with an easy online ordering system.
They set their own product prices and retain ownership of the product (the co-op is not buying it and re-selling it; rather, the consumer is buying directly from the producer).
They also can control their inventory and limit how much is available according to how much they have.
There are no minimum volumes but producers are asked to post a product at least once a year to show they’re still interested.
They bring their goods to their closest hub for transport to Dryden and further distribution.
Consumers can join the co-op by buying a lifetime membership fee of $25.
To join, they go online to, fill out an order form, and pay their fee.
Then they can order goods from the website.
Each week, goods are sent to their local distribution hub, where they are sorted by volunteers and made ready for pick-up.
The co-op benefits the consumer in that it is a one-stop shop for local products, with easy pick-up in one location.
They also know where their food is coming from, and can eat local and support their local economy.
Consumers also get weekly e-newsletters with recipes and updates.
Organizations such as schools, restaurants, hospitals, and more also can join for a lifetime membership fee of $50.
They can make purchases, as well as vote at general meetings (as can producer and consumer members).
The board of directors is led by producers and consumers, with the Northwestern Heath Unit overseeing it to ensure it maintains a community focus, said Springett.
As a co-op, all members are voting members.
“Being a co-operative and actually having our consumers own part of our co-op, and be voting members and be part of the leadership, has helped to create some additional loyalty,” Springett added.
“Producers are also part of that leadership so they’re retaining that independence and ensuring the way we operate suits their needs.”
A couple of local producers, including Rainy River Meats and Seven Bends Honey, currently sell product through the Cloverbelt Local Food Co-op.
But participation by Rainy River District could expand in future with the addition of a distribution hub here.
Cloverbelt manager Marcus Ledsham noted Cloverbelt’s vision is to become the central hub for the production and distribution of local goods in Northwestern Ontario.
This will include strengthening policies for organizational stability, engaging members and the community, and building supply.
Part of this includes a online regional food mapping and distribution project using GPS information.
“Essentially, it’s going to be an online, multi-layered map,” Ledsham explained.
“We’re going to map the assets of Northwestern Ontario, the main things being food production, processing and distribution.
“It’s going to be available to everyone once it’s completed,” he added. “If you want to see who is making what where, you can see that.
“If you want to overlap that with existing distribution routes, you can see that, as well.
“What it’s going to do is provide a blueprint for capacity improvement, it’s going to identify gaps in production in Northwestern Ontario,” Ledsham said.
“And it’ll allow municipalities and private enterprise, as well, to possibly fill in those gaps to make a more complete picture of local food in Northwestern Ontario.”
It also will identify effective transport routes from hub to hub, supplier to supplier.
“Anything is really possible as far as the analysis is concerned,” said Ledsham.
“It’s really one of the most important things because transport is an ever-increasing cost of doing business,” he noted.
“If you can find the most effective way of doing it to lower your costs, we think that’s a fantastic thing.”
Springett said setting up a hub in Rainy River District, whether it be Fort Frances or Emo, could happen in one of two ways.
“It depends whether you want it to happen now, if you want it to come from us, or if it is going to come from you,” she remarked.
“If it’s going to come from us, then you’re going to wait until we’re done our feasibility study and we’ve looked at developing a feasible transportation network and found the most cost-effective manner, and perhaps purchased refrigerated trucks, to connect all of Northwestern Ontario,” said Springett.
“If you want it to happen sooner, then Rainy River [District] needs to participate, take a role in that, and take initiative,” she stressed.
“Like the other sites where they have found a distribution site, have someone that wants to oversee it, perhaps found transportation that’s existing that this local food can tack on with to make it to Dryden,” Springett added.
“That’s how our other pilot hubs have come up in the meantime, which has given us information we need in our feasibility study.”
In addition to the online market and food box program, Cloverbelt recently raised money for—and began building—a community greenhouse in Dryden.
“It’s really a poster child which incorporates increased visibility and education of the community, which are really two of our goals,” said Ledsham.
Plots have been rented to producers to increase production of vegetables, as well as donated to schools as a grassroots educational tool.
That, in turn, hopefully encourages future generations to grow their own food.