Talking food at the Ontario Food Terminal

This week, as a member of the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council, I had a unique opportunity not available to the general public: to enter the off-limits to the public, high-stakes world of international security – food security that is, at the Ontario Food Terminal. While it may not sound as glamourous as getting through the doors of the Pentagon or the United Nations, for those interested in the Canadian food system, or even food systems in general, getting into the OFT feels like you’ve hit the big time. After all, the vast majority of fresh fruits and vegetables you can find in this city have passed through its doors at some point, and the machinations involved in moving 5.1 million lbs of food a day are definitely impressive.

The Ontario Food Terminal is the central distribution and wholesale hub for the entire province, serving markets in the Prairies and the East Coast as well. The largest market of its kind in Canada (and the third largest in North America), the Food Terminal houses both an international warehouse market and a local wholesale farmer’s market on 162,000 m2 beside the Gardiner Expressway.


As Bruce Nicholas, OFT Manager and our tour guide explained, the Terminal was founded in the early 1950’s to address the difficulty in distributing food throughout the city from congested St. Lawrence Market (the former hub). The food system was not only struggling with distribution at that time, but pricing as well. Chain grocery stores had begun dropping prices to outcompete mom and pop grocers and at the same time the US had completed construction of interstate highways, making it easy to dump low-priced American products onto the Canadian market. The OFT was born of a time when farmers were a major voting force in Ontario; it was designed to protect farmers and small grocers by bringing them together and providing fair, transparent pricing competition. The Stockyards at Keele and St. Clair was opened at the same time to provide a similar venue for meat producers, but has since closed, the majority of meat production and commerce moving to Kitchener.

The Food Terminal in 2010

Our tour began at 8:30 am, by which time most of the activity in the market had died down for the day. Since the OFT provides fresh produce to restaurants and green grocers, selling is done before regular business hours, which vendors opening their doors at around 4am. Buyers, whether they are shop owners, “jobbers” who buy and resell at a variety of locations or representatives chains like Longo’s arrive even earlier to get first pickings. Buyers talk and haggle with local producers in the farmers’ market area and international wholesalers inside to find out who has what products, and where the food is freshest and the prices best. Young guys zip around on forklifts, seeming almost to race eachother as they bring pallets of produce looking fresher than you’ll ever see in stores from trucks to vendors and vice versa  

Bruce Nicholas views the OFT as a place that incubates new businesses and new innovations. Many of his Ontario growers started out bringing truckloads and are now supplying tractor-trailers of produce to the Ontario market. He proudly showed us evidence of import-substitution: the sandy soils that used to grow Ontario’s tobacco now being used to produce local sweet potatoes, removing the need to ship them from Louisiana. The support of innovation is seen elsewhere too, in their decades-old waste management system which sends compost back to farmers and was recycling before the blue bin system. This seems to stem more from financial necessity than environmental consciousness, though the OFT is an arms-length organization it receives no government funding, and Bruce makes it clear that the six american cents he gets for returning each of hundreds of plastic pallet corners to the US are definitely worth the trouble.

Like the Toronto Food Policy Council, the OFT is an important part of what makes Toronto a world-renowned city in the food security sphere, and groups come from across Canada and the US to find out what makes it tick. The end of the day sees social service groups come in for a share of the produce, the Daily Bread Food Bank arrives for a pickup as I’m leaving and Mr. Nicholas tells us about a group of gleaners who purchase and freeze dry food in bulk to send to hunger programs abroad.
 Making Connections

It’s clear that the Food Terminal is connected to a variety of players in Ontario’s food web, but exactly how it fits into the picture of a food secure province is complicated. Mr. Nicholas volunteers his frustration about the policy of many farmers’ markets that all vendors must also be growers, farmers are not allowed to pay someone else to sell their products, or products from a variety of farms, at most Toronto markets. Many markets have a policy of “grower-only” vendors, which allows customers to meet their farmer and ask questions, ensures a short chain of accountability, and provides a venue for small-scale and niche farmers who don’t produce enough for grocery stores, to sell their goods. However, as Bruce Nicholas argues, if the whole point is to help Ontario farmers and get people eating as much local produce as possible, should we bother being strict or should we just make like the OFT and allow anyone who wants to vend access to an affordable space? The topic sparked a great deal of discussion among those of us at the tour, we discussed the toll it takes on farmers to drive in and market their goods instead of being on the farm working and yet the potential impacts of not regulating re-selling at markets. We’d love to hear from you, how you think markets can best promote food security and any other impressions or questions about the OFT too!

This article was originally posted here at

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