Ontario Natural Food Co-op

Creating a sustainable food system from seed to plate

Co-operatives are driven by values not just profit; aiming to build a better world, allowing people to co-operate, work together and create sustainable enterprises that generate jobs, prosperity and support local communities and economies. Co-operatives are owned and run by and for their members, where each has an equal say in the business direction and profit sharing.

One such co-operative emerged in 1976 in Ontario — the Ontario Natural Food Co-op (ONFC). Following market direction, for over three decades ONFC has been focusing on bringing together suppliers and members with a single goal — to enrich markets with natural, organic and local goods. Today, ONFC offers over 4,000 products from 250-plus vendors, including organic and natural foods and beverages, meat, fish, eco-friendly household cleaning items, baby needs, personal care and everything in between. This mass of products makes ONFC one of the leading distributors of organic and natural foods in Ontario.

Owned by its members, ONFC’s vision is to live in a sustainable world from seed to plate. Its primary purpose is to service members and non-members by producing, procuring, warehousing and distributing natural, sustainable, organic local food and products while adhering to stringent product selection criteria.

Focused on creating win-win partnerships within the supply chain, ONFC clients include local buying clubs, retail co-ops such as The Big Carrot, London Food Co-op, Karma Co-op and independent natural and organic health food retailers such as Health First Network (ONFC’s buying group of health stores across Canada). ONFC clients also include larger retail partners such as Whole Foods, Fiesta Farms and many more.

Randy Whitteker, General Manager of ONFC, tells The Canadian Business Journal, “We find that business often makes compromises to the social and environmental bottom lines, as the decision-making process is driven by profitability. We focus on a triple bottom line. We use a sustainability scorecard to measure our financial wellbeing, balanced with social and environmental accountability.”

“Our current food systems put high value on the price of the food and not necessarily on other key attributes such as how the food is grown and produced. It’s our observation that such food systems are not sustainable in the long run, because they don’t take into account the so-called externalities, such as environmental and soil degradation, human health concerns and so on. These are the issues our members are asking us to address when selecting our products.

“The question of sustainability goes beyond how the food is grown – which can be addressed by things like organic certification – and it also has a lot to do with how goods get to market. This has us evaluating how to decentralize delivery systems, either by introducing a greater number of smaller distribution hubs rather than large central ones; or by creating value chains – a whole system of local organic food co-ops that would encompass everything from growing and producing to retail sales of these local products.”

Ontario Natural

“We have also created our own private label food brand – Ontario Natural. This is a line of sustainable and organic products; grown, processed and packaged right here in Ontario. We have created this brand to rebuild the middle of the Ontario food system, which has been largely lost due to cheap offshore food imports. These imports made Ontario food markets more dependent and less resilient. The Ontario Natural brand is intended to support local products and economies, help rebuild our food system, and reinforce the values of sustainability and healthy ingredients.”

John Landsborough, Sales and Marketing Manager at ONFC, says, “The Ontario Natural brand was a concept that grew out of a demand for organic, locally grown Ontario products. Ontario is the food basket of the nation and home to some of the most thriving and environmentally sustainable farms within Canada.

More and more, today’s consumer is looking to source locally produced, nutritious foods and creating relationships with the producers and growers. In short, they want to know where their food is coming from and how it is being produced and processed. The strong response we’ve had to the Ontario Natural brand from both retailers and consumers has resulted in strong growth of the brand franchise and introductions of new products to build our product road map. We are very excited about the future of Ontario Natural and the enthusiastic response we’ve received.”

Year of the Co-op

“2012 has been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Co-operatives, recognizing the co-op’s important place in the economy. Thanks to this international initiative, ONFC has had more opportunities to educate and present their role in the economy to the public,” says Whitteker, adding, “We are seeing a broader awareness of what it means to be a co-op, and we have the opportunity to show people that co-ops are as much about people as they are about profits.”

ONFC Co-op management

Kim De Lallo, Member Relations and Education Manager at ONFC, says, “Our members are involved at all levels. They are the customers, the Board of Directors and the investors. This management structure assures that there is no disconnect in the decision-making process as to the company direction as can often happen with other management structures. Co-operatives have proven themselves to be more resilient during the past economic downturns than other business structures.”

Social and financial balancing is at the forefront of ONFC employee responsibilities. With just under 100 employees, ONFC provides a progressive workplace that motivates and engages people, making them more effective. “To truly deliver on your mission and long-term vision, you have to work with your staff. They are your main resource for delivering your message. We are in the process of improving and creating the working conditions for our employees in order for them to feel more motivated; our goal is to become an outstanding employer,” De Lallo says. One of the ways ONFC engages employees is via the Partners in Project Green initiative which includes over 500 companies in the Pearson Eco Zone. Employees are encouraged to get involved with ideas and action for implementing greening and sustainability improvement throughout all areas of the company.

Following the direction of its members, ONFC continues on the road of sustainable profitability, balancing profits with social and environmental accountability. ONFC offers its members high quality service, large product selection and competitive pricing, whether the product comes from Ontario, or a fair trade product coming from across the world. ONFC also offers a suite of additional member benefits to improve member services, and continues to grow its sustainable initiatives across Ontario.