Local Farmers Have a Place at The Table

Chef Judy Dempsey spearheads local food procurement for The Table Community Food Centre. Here, she shares the inside scoop on how to do this well.

Wherever possible, Community Food Centres try to purchase directly from local farmers and producers as a way to support the local food economy and make fresh, nutritious, and ethically produced food available to those on low incomes.

When it comes to food procurement, it’s the Community Chef — tasked with running the community meal program as well as ensuring the smooth functioning of the kitchen — who is usually in charge. At The Table Community Food Centre, Chef Judy Dempsey’s long-time role in the Perth, Ontario culinary scene makes her a great fit for the role. Creative, resourceful, pragmatic, and still abundantly patient and warm, Judy espouses the most important characteristics of a Community Chef. She’s also no stranger to working with local farmers.

With some solid experience under her belt now, Judy shared some useful pointers to how she makes local food procurement work for her and The Table. If you work with an organization wanting to source more food locally, you'll likely find these tips useful too:

  • Finding Farmers. Judy suggests visiting the local farmers’ markets as a way to see who is growing what, make connections, and get some valuable face time with growers which is otherwise hard during the growing season.
  • Getting Your Vegetables. Now familiar with The Table’s ordering needs, Judy strives to have standing orders with local fruit and vegetable growers, or will have certain crops or varieties grown on spec with a commitment to purchase. Not all produce is ordered in this way of course; farmers will still call her up with a bushel of this or that on offer. Judy takes it in stride. “With such a short growing season here in Perth, we try to jump at any opportunity for local produce.”
  • The Meat of the Matter. Locally produced meat is available year-round in the region. But to access the volume, quality, and cuts she desires, Judy will place her meat orders months in advance. This year for her request of forty whole chickens, Judy placed her order with Heritage Haven Farm in January so that the farm could purchase the chicks in March, and be ready for butchering at The Table when Judy needed by July. If you ask Judy, she’ll tell you that having extra freezer space to accommodate large orders of meat is critical.
  • Put the E in Mail. Judy asks farmers to regularly email her what they have available so she can place her order. Working with producers via email is much more efficient than playing phone tag amidst busy schedules on both sides. Invoices are also sent by email.
  • Paying Up. The Table is committed to paying farmers promptly. It cultivates a strong working relationship and is just good practice. In addition, Judy keeps careful track of all the local food purchases she makes as she finds herself often being asked about this later on by funders, partners, and researchers.
  • Communicate! Working directly with farmers takes a lot more communication than a trip to the local grocery store. And aside from the obvious rewards of fresh, delicious produce and ethically raised meats, it’s Table’s way of investing in the local food system. And in turn, it makes them an ideal client in an uncertain marketplace.  

Alongside chefs at fellow Community Food Centres, Judy continually strives to make sure that The Table’s commitment to local food delivers fresh, high quality ingredients to the centre’s program participants, while benefiting the farmers who become, in some ways, an extension of the CFC family. As Judy put it, “the food grown in Lanark County is directly reflected in the dishes we create here together, making our meals both for the community and of the community.” It seems fitting, then, that the connection between farmers and eaters would be at The Table.