An update from the Ecology Action Centre & Nova Scotia Health Care Purchasing Limited Seafood Project

An update from the Ecology Action Centre & Nova Scotia Health Care Purchasing Limited Seafood Project

Justin Cantafio (Ecology Action Centre) & Ben Doucette (Yarmouth Regional Hospital)

Hello learning group members!

We have the pleasure of posting the first blog to our new learning group blog page. We’re hoping this page can be a forum for sharing updates, challenges, solutions, and anything else that might help us work together as a community to solve both our individually unique and collectively similar tasks. I’m very happy that we’ve all been unified, pushing together collectively and contributing to this very real movement of systemic change in food systems.

The fact that our project is the only one featuring seafood means that we’re facing some relatively unique challenges. That being said, when it comes to seasonality, bottom hook and line caught groundfish (haddock, cod, pollock, hake, etc.) lines up relatively similarly to farmers’ harvest seasons. What that means is that like many if not all of you, most of our time these days is being spent on working out the fine details around logistical subtleties and securing key value chain partnerships, rather than actually moving food. We’ll wait for the spring and early summer for that!

FSC Assembly

One recent event that has me extremely excited is the Food Secure Canada Assembly that just took place earlier this month in Halifax. We sourced all of the seafood served during the event, including the big Saturday lunch, where the Marriott Harbourfront Hotel’s cooking staff served up 171 pounds of haddock fillets to hundreds of food system experts. The verdict? The general consensus was that it was outstanding!

The greatest part about this is that the seafood we served was actually frozen. During a discussion with a variety of institutional stakeholders and food service provider staff, I asked how many of them thought the seafood was fresh, and just caught. Everyone in the room thought this was the case. This speaks to the quality of bottom hook and line caught seafood—the kind caught by small scale fishermen in Nova Scotia that almost always gets dumped in with the smaller, lower quality seafood caught by trawlers.

The seafood we served was caught by small scale fishermen, and each fish was hand handled, removed from hooks one at a time, and placed in a slurry of ice and salt water. Once landed, it was immediately fileted and frozen via IQF. When defrosted properly, the quality and nutritional profile is maintained.

So in a nutshell, we’re really excited about our institutional procurement project, because this is the exact same type of seafood that will be served to staff, patrons, residents, and guests at the four healthcare facilities we’ll be working with during our project. And on top of that, much of the seafood we source will be fresh during season. Quality is paramount, not only for taste and texture, but in a healthcare context, also for nutrition.

Keeping costs low

The real challenge is to figure out how we’ll keep costs low enough to work with the spending margins of these institutions. Large corporations have their macroeconomics down pact, and somehow seafood that has been trawled, frozen, shipped to China for processing, re-frozen, and shipped back to a centralized distribution depot, can often be the cheapest option.

We’ll be exploring a variety of options for making sure that these facilities don’t need to go over their budgets. Some of these methods might be working with less processed seafoods, suggesting slightly smaller portion sizes of higher quality seafood, and sourcing more affordable (yet “underloved” species of fish). When fresh and properly-handled, some species that fetch lower prices such as mackerel or pollock can be substituted for the more commonly demanded species (which are often twice-frozen and unsustainably caught or grown) such as cod or salmon.

We’re tinkering with various value chain members to get the lowest price while ensuring that we promote a regional value chain. We’ve had productive conversations with fishermen, fish processors, fish freezers, storage facility operators, and transportation companies, among others. The secret is to find the right mix of champions and leaders and to work together. Ultimately, we’re hoping that these relationships we help put together will last beyond our project and be self-sustaining.

View from the kitchen

Ben, a chef with the Yarmouth Regional Hospital, offers a unique perspective from the kitchen—the place where ingredients are prepared into meals and nourishment. Some of the challenges he noted were that it might take more time for processing, which can lead to higher labour costs. If it requires an increase in employee workload, increased time constraints and stress could result in an overall decrease in the quality of food prepared. Other challenges include that it might be difficult to collect data to oversee the positive and negative effects of the shift from a chef and kitchen perspective, and it is possible that higher food costs could be an issue.

Ben also noted some opportunities from this project. This includes the creative freedom that chefs will have when preparing less processed seafood, and that it is often easier to gauge freshness when seafood is less processed. He thinks that there is an opportunity to increase customer, staff, and patron satisfaction from the higher quality seafood, and that higher customer satisfaction has the opportunity to lead to an increase in revenue.

One of the benefits of this working group is that we can share our collective expertise and what we learn along the way. For example, while we have a few metrics in mind, I’d be very excited to hear if some of the teams have evaluation metrics for gauging the effects of increased production time in the kitchen for chefs.

Another thing we’ll be doing is putting together a chefs working group, which will allow some of the cooking staff from each institution to share important information, such as any food preparation techniques that reduce overall prep time for frozen fillets, or recipes that were an absolute click with nursing home residents, for example.


Institutional procurement is one of the venues we’re exploring to promote value chains that support small-scale fisheries in Nova Scotia. Our work often meshes together as we develop our seafood hub project, meeting value chain members throughout the province, and learning how to solve tricky logistical challenges.

We’ll continue to meet with key stakeholders to solidify relationships and be ready to start shifting seafood into the food streams of the four institutions were working with in the spring and early summer.

I’m looking forward to reading all the other groups’ blogs. It seems almost impossible to summarize things in such a short space, so if anything else worth sharing comes up, I’ll be sure to post it to the comments section of this blog. If anyone has any thoughts, questions, suggestions, or concerns, feel free to post here or to email me at


Network group: 


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Hi Justin and Ben

Thanks for this great post! I do want to say that my original expectation was just to post a few paragraphs so I hope that other projects feel free to write something shorter if they like.

I wanted to pick-up on the theme of costing in your post and share with you the Local Food Costing calculator tool that we didn’t have time to cover in the Montreal meeting. It is essentially a pre-formatted spreadsheet that you can use to cost out a plate, comparing the case cost of a “conventional” vs. “local, sustainable” product.

It includes a few sample produce and protein items, so for fish you would need to adapt it to the products you are selling (for example in the column of AP EP this is how much waste from trimming on average there is. So for a filet product that would be 0, and would require some research if you were selling a whole fish on what amount is for the plate. If the chef could use the bones etc for stock this value maybe could be incorporated somehow?).

I’ve made a separate post for the Local Food Costing Calculator so that it doesn’t get lost in the blog thread if you want to check it out. 



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