During the first week of summer my family and I spent a week vacationing in Muskoka. After a few days of eating like I was on vacation I had started to crave local in-season produce, something I have become accustomed to as a proud Guelphite. After a quick online search I discovered Muskoka North Good Food Co-op, a nearby co-operative grocery store, and stopped by to load up on nutritious local produce.

Being unfamiliar with the area, we followed our map into the town of Huntsville, and found ourselves in an industrial area. Muskoka North Good Food is set up in an unpretentious warehouse-like space, with everything that you’d expect to find a natural food market.

There were tables set up with a bountiful harvest of local produce, from thick leafy kale, to bursting red strawberries, and earthy potatoes. In fridges and freezers we found all kinds of meats, eggs, and prepared foods. Most of your grocery and snacking needs can be met at the co-op, and it’s obvious that care has been taken to source local and ethical suppliers.

I had a chance to chat with Kelli Ebbs, one of the managers at the Co-op, about the history behind MNGFC, and the bright and exciting future ahead. Kelli shared that in 2013 the Muskoka region began conducting studies about the local food system and the different community needs within the region. After a variety of community consultations it became clear that the community wanted to support local producers, and sought an easily accessible spot to source products year round.

“The producers were also saying they would increase their capacity if there was a venue,” said Kelli, who has worked as a Nutrition Programs Advisor for First Nations, Metis and Inuit students for Breakfast Club Canada.

A group of people began meeting in Kelli’s living room, and slowly the concept of the co-op unfolded. There were many different types of models to consider, but the group kept returning to the co-operative model, and felt that a multi-stakeholder company would best serve the community and producers.

“We started by doing little pop-ups around our community – we collaborated with producers and natural food distributors – and then we would pop up a store in a train station, library, or community centre,” Kelli shared.

People were showing up and eager to engage as participants in the grassroots movement, and soon the Co-op was able to purchase extra products from their suppliers, and start selling to those that hadn’t heard of the movement.

“We started with zero capital, and for the first three years it was just all volunteer. You can’t just open a co-op store right away, it takes education and trust. Memberships take time to grow as people learn to trust,” Kelli said.

The first 300 to 400 memberships came in quickly, and over the years MNGFC has established trust within the community. There are now 750 memberships with the co-op, and new members are joining each day.  For those that aren’t ready to become members, or people like me, who were just stopping in but aren’t local, membership is not a requirement.

In 2017 the Co-op was able to establish their permanent location at 1 Crescent Road, after finding a supportive landlord who was excited about the movement. Kelli was eventually hired on as one of three managers of the store, and is heading the development of a new commercial kitchen and cafe, which will be opening in the same building, within the next month or so. Because Muskoka is considered part of Northern Ontario the co-op have been able to apply for government grants and have received funding that is going towards building the cafe and commercial kitchen.

Kelli shared that she is passionate about spreading food literacy and encouraging others to eat well on a budget, which is why the community kitchen and cafe will serve as a hub for the community, as well as a tool to teach food literacy. The community kitchen will operate a cannery, which will introduce the concept of canning to locals and help them to preserve their foods, an economical and healthy option for eating well year round.

The Co-op is also passionate about reducing food waste, and will be able to ensure that food does not go to waste through the use of their commercial kitchen.

“We have this kitchen to take the food to, so it can become something consumable before going to compost,” said Kelli. The cafe will serve as a hub for the community, where people can come, sit, and stay awhile.

“People will be able to try different foods that they’re unfamiliar with, and we want to provide really good clean healthy food. It’s lacking in our resturaunt industries. There’s very little around here where the food is coming from these local suppliers and healthful places,” said Kelli, who has seen the craving for locally supplied food within the community.

Kelli said that the value of local food is ten-fold, from the added nutrition, to the fact that people are supporting local agri-businesses, but her passion is to create a food model that is accessible to all.

“No matter what, this food will be inaccessible to some people, and so we are creating a subsidized model and rate, working creatively with funders, customers, and the community so that we can make sure that everybody can access it,” said Kelli, which is a groundbreaking move that many co-ops do not venture into.

Kelli said that the last few years have proven that being a part of something is just as important as creating a local and sustainable model of food consumption, which is why the combination of market, cafe, and commercial kitchen is sure to create the type of hub and haven that the Muskoka community needs most.

To find out more visit Muskoka North Good Food Co-op’s website here.

Story by Brianna Bell
Photography by Daniel Bell

Aug 21, 2018