A look inside the Ontario Food Terminal

A fascinating inside look at the continent’s third-largest fresh-food terminal, where local vs. organic is a hot topic

A look inside the Ontario Food Terminal

Source: Best Health magazine, September 2013; Image: Laura Arsiè

One late-summer morning, Ron Mandryk, a burly, friendly-faced farmer from southwestern Ontario, was standing in his stall at the Ont­ario Food Terminal (OFT), winding down for the day just as thousands of city dwellers were starting theirs. He lit a cigarette and surveyed several racks of his bushels brimming with yellow peppers and eggplant.

‘I’m just about done,’ he sighed wearily, waving away the smoke. ‘I’ve got a few more weeks until this season is finished. I’m tired”

It’s not difficult to see why: Mandryk ‘ who began travelling to this sprawling food wholesale market on Toronto’s western fringe with his father back in 1967’maintains a punishing schedule. From early July to early October, he rises every evening at about 10:30 p.m., makes sure his two trucks are loaded up, and sets out for the two-hour drive from Simcoe, near Port Dover on Lake Erie, to Toronto. He gets there about 2 a.m.

After he and a couple of assistants set out their wares in the farmers’ section of the OFT, Mandryk prepares to negotiate prices and orders with the thousands of produce buyers who ‘walk the market’‘which is host to some 400 sellers like Mandryk’between 4 a.m. and 2 p.m. They’re purchasing fruit and vegetables on behalf of independent supermarkets, restaurants, greengrocers and florists, among others; thousands of trucks of various sizes pass through the entrance each day. While most of Mandryk’s produce stays in the Toronto area, some of his vegetables’he also grows potatoes and cabbages on the 20-hectare farm he runs with his wife, Cindy, and the additional 24 hectares he rents’will end up travelling from the OFT to Detroit, the Maritimes and even to an army barracks in the Arctic.

Once the day’s buying is done, he tallies up orders and calls Cindy to let her know how much produce to wash and load for the next day. If noon-hour traffic out of Toronto is co-operative, Mandryk is back at his farm by mid-afternoon and in bed by 5 p.m.

‘It’s so intensive, it’s a wonder there aren’t more farmers getting heart attacks,’ he says, chuckling. He also realizes that the consumers who ultimately buy his peppers and cut them into salads don’t think much about the effort it took to get them from field to plate. ‘A proper thing to do,’ he adds, ‘is to ask, ‘Who picked it? Where did it come from? Is it home-grown Canadian?'”

What is the Ontario Food Terminal?

The OFT is a bustling non-profit facility owned by the Ontario government. It’s North America’s third-largest wholesale fruit and produce distribution centre, after New York and Chicago. Each year, about 900,000 metric tons of produce and flowers flow through here, says operations manager Gary Da Silva. Built in 1954 on the then-edges of a rapidly growing metropolis, the terminal, whose long corridors and open areas studded with farmers’ stalls are filled with skids of food being shunted about by electric forklifts, has been open continuously ever since.

‘I basically hunt for the best possible price but top-notch quality,’
says Mario Pugliese, produce buyer for Rabba Fine Foods, a chain of small Toronto supermarkets. A cheerful 20-year veteran of the terminal, he will buy about $80,000 to $120,000 worth of fruit and vegetables every week, spread out over four mornings. ‘This market allows us to be quite competitive with the big chain stores.’

Though outwardly industrial in appearance, the 16-hectare site is a cornucopia of fresh food imported from all over the world’a microcosm of our society’s palate. But in recent years, the OFT’s 400 Ontario farmer tenants’growers like Mandryk’have seen a steadily rising demand for their produce, as Can­adian shoppers become more interested in supporting locally grown food.

Local versus organic food

Yet local food is just one of many consumer trends that have swept through the terminal’s teeming loading docks. Shoppers are also looking for organic fruit and vegetables, only some of which are grown locally. Immigration, too, has left its mark, as newcomers to Canada look for the foods they knew in their home countries’mangoes, prickly pears, purple carrots, etc. Finally, the ‘foodie’ culture has created fresh demand for fare that at one time was considered specialized, like arugula or rapini.

The OFT, in many ways, functions like a stock market. ‘Everything is supply and demand,’ says Da Silva. ‘Market conditions will dictate what the prices are going to be.’

True. And many factors are determining those market conditions. With exploding rates of obesity-related chronic illness, growing attention to healthy eating habits and mounting concern over the environmental impact of commercial farming, grocery stores’ fruit and veggie sections are a maze of confusing questions with complex and often contradictory answers: Should I make a point of buying local when I can buy cheaper imported fruit? Should I choose smaller locally grown, but non-organic, strawberries? Or organic strawberries from California?

What constitutes healthy food?

In 2008, U.S. journalist Michael Pollan turned the food industry on its head when he published In Defense of Food, which slammed industrial agriculture and a food-processing sector that churns out some appallingly unhealthy products. His practical advice: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’

Yet with billions of dollars at stake, the debate about what constitutes healthy food is hardly settled. Last year, Stanford University researchers published a major study in the Annals of Internal Medicine that asked if organic foods are safer or healthier than ‘conventional alternatives.’ Conclusion: The published literature ‘lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods,’ although consumption of organics ‘may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.’

Closer to home, in 2012 a pair of Canadian economic researchers’Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu’took a run at the local food movement with a provocative book, The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet. They argue the local food movement is rooted in a romantic idea of agriculture that ignores the wider benefits of a global food chain.

‘The available evidence,’ they write, ‘convin­cingly demonstrates that long-distance trade and modern technologies have resulted in much greater food availability, lower prices, improved health and less environmental damage than if they had never mat­erialized.’ Long-distance trade, they add, has lifted millions out of rural poverty and malnutrition.

But some local-food activists have no time for such views. Burkhard Mausberg, CEO of Ontario’s Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, says Shimizu and Desrochers falsely depict those who want to support local farmers as ‘absolutists’; many consumers depend on both local and imported food. ‘I don’t see this as a black and white issue,’ he says.

The business of local farming

Fred and Marcus Koornneef, a father-and-son team who run a large produce distribution operation in Grimsby, Ont., are looking stressed. Fred, who is 52, paces among the stacks of crates at the OFT, talking excitedly on a cellphone. Their trucks’which haul thousands of hothouse peppers and cucumbers and cluster tomatoes to the warehouse space they lease inside the terminal’are late. ‘We could lose 90 percent of our sales for the day,’ says Marcus, a tall 27-year-old.

Their business dates back to the late 1940s, when Marcus’s grandfather Arie immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands and bought a small farm in the Niagara fruit belt. Over the years, he began to expand. But when Fred took over, he transformed the business into a warehouse and distribution service for 35 growers in the area. Most of Koornneef’s growers are the large-scale greenhouse operations that produce vegetables year-round in quantities that satisfy the needs of supermarket chains.

Is local food better?

With mounting consumer interest in locally grown food, the kind of fruit and vegetables distributed by Koornneef through the OFT’grown by Ontario farmers’has gained increasing market share. It doesn’t come from halfway around the world, with the associated environmental damage caused by long-distance transport.

Nutritionally, the case for local food is strong. There’s little dispute that the less time that elapses between the field and the plate, the better tasting the produce. As Toronto author and urban food systems expert Wayne Roberts points out, taste is very often a precise indicator of nutrition content.

Yet Andreas Boecker, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Guelph, notes that the nutrient content of a given type of fresh produce is just one piece of the health puzzle. Other factors’a person’s genetics, lifestyle, stress’play a big role in our overall well-being. It’s ‘difficult to isolate’ the health benefits of local versus imported, he says.

What about the environmental angle? The OFT is seeing mounting demand for local produce as more consumers choose it in order to reduce their ‘food miles.’ Boecker notes that an often overlooked environmental impact is the so-called ‘last mile”energy used by consumers to drive to the supermarket, local food store or the often distant farmers’ market. And some produce grown locally year-round (even in a Canad­ian winter’e.g., hothouse peppers and cucumbers) is energy intensive. ‘There are leaks in the rapidly evolving local-food system, where there’s room for energy efficiency improvement,’ he adds.

Moreover, critics say local food may also be pricier than imports, and thus limit consumers’ ability to purchase more fresh food. ‘If you promote this uncompetitive local food production system, the price of food will go up,’ says Desrochers. ‘The world needs more trade in agricultural produce.’

Wayne Roberts and other local-food advocates reject such claims, noting that the reason a lot of imported produce is less expensive is due to foreign subsidies for large producers. Says the Greenbelt Foundation’s Mausberg, ‘Local farmers often feel they are at an unfair competitive disadvantage.’ 

These academic debates recede in the OFT as buyers fan out to place orders with farmers such as Mandryk and distributors like the Koorrneefs. In this marketplace, Ontario-grown produce must compete with what’s been brought over vast distances by cargo ships and refrigerated trucks.

But Ontario growers understand why they enjoy an advantage in a facility like this one. As Da Silva points out, it takes a truck 72 hours’three days of driving 12 hours a day’to come from a California fruit warehouse. He adds that farmers like Mandryk, however, can get here much more quickly. He grabs a plump yellow pepper from one of Mandryk’s bushels. ‘This pepper,’ Da Silva asks. ‘When was it picked?’

‘Yesterday afternoon,’ replies Mandryk.

This article was originally titled "Spoiled for choice" in the September 2013 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!