Is social enterprise the key to the future of local food?


by Deron Johnston

Recently, at the Eastern Ontario Local Food Conference in November, there was one breakout session that was of particular interest to this writer. It was a session on “The Role of Social Enterprise in Developing Sustainable Local Food Systems”. It was described as “this panel will profile the importance of social enterprises in building a sustainable local food system by showcasing innovative business models and the impact they create”.

Three specific examples were introduced by a founder, a marketing executive, and an executive director. The first enterprise to be showcased was called Klink Coffee. It was created by the John Howard Society of Toronto, a not-for-profit organization. What’s unique about Klink, explained Mark Kerwin, is that it provides jobs and skills training for people returning from the criminal justice system. These people would normally find it very difficult to find employment with a criminal record. They currently sell their different blends of coffee online, but hope to expand to a café and storefront in 2018.

The second organization featured was the YWCA of Hamilton. Executive Director, Denise Christopherson, told the over-capacity crowd about turning around a café that was losing money for the YWCA. She outlined how her organization closed the café and opened a catering business called “At The Table”. It quickly became successful, so using the catering proceeds, they renovated and then re-opened the café. They almost exclusively employ women who are staying at the YWCA. The women gain work experience, employment skills, and small business experience, so that they can eventually go out to pursue their own careers, or open their own businesses.

The final presentation was from Brandon Hebor of Ripple Farms Inc., who had a unique process of aquaponics to tell everyone about. They use a metal shipping container filled with water and Tilapia (yes the fish) to somehow provide the energy needed to grow leafy vegetables in a greenhouse on top of the shipping container. It’s a truly remarkable process, and his organization has been asked to make presentations around the world about it. Brandon believes that, by using this process, there would, potentially, no longer be a need to ship produce thousands of kilometres, but instead it can be grown right here on Canadian soil using this system.

Most people are unaware of it, but the Two Rivers Food Hub in Smith’s Falls is a social enterprise that is managed by Kemptville resident Bruce Enloe. A fine example of the social enterprise model for local food, Two Rivers’ mandate is to support small and medium-sized farmers in and around Lanark, and Leeds and Grenville counties. Two Rivers offers a wide range of facilities and services for farmers and producers, such as a commercial kitchen for food processing, storage for root vegetables, and wholesale services (where they sell to restaurants and institutions what they buy from local farmers and producers) to name just a few.

With such a successful example as the Two Rivers Food Hub just down the road, and various other examples of successful and innovative social enterprises, it’s not difficult to imagine the significant impact that they could have in creating, solidifying, or enhancing a thriving local food system. What’s your idea?


  1. We don’t have to look to far into the past to see how cooperatives were the primary drivers of profitable agricultural activity in Eastern Ontario. With the rise of large scale agri-business enterprises serving global markets in the last century, the cooperative model took a hit. Government funding can help animate and facilitate cooperative and other non-profits models of local food production and distribution but it can’t sustain them. That’s unworkable. Independent private actors are the foundation of any successful system – governments can only act as a catalyst for change; the change makers are those personally invested in their success.


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