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big idea

Jaco Lokker, executive chef at University of Toronto's 89 Chestnut residence, is photographed in Toronto, Ont., April 28, 2011.

A mission to overhaul Toronto's eating habits household-by-household has fed the local food movement's massive growth in recent years.

Next on the list of pursuits is the movement's own holy grail: The litany of institutional cafeterias that dish out thousands of meals each week to government employees, hospital patients, staffers and students. For most, the bottom line is top of mind and little thought goes into how far the food off their delivery trucks has travelled.

From his post as director of food services at the University of Toronto's St. George campus, one innovative, local-loving chef is upsetting the status quo.

Jaco Lokker, who also oversees Chestnut Residence, is in charge of feeding more than 1,000 students three (or four or five, depending on appetites) meals a day for 32 weeks of the year. Under the constraints of the student meal plan, that means putting out 13,000 plates of food a week at a cost of about $3 each. That hasn't stopped him from converting 65 per cent of the food that passed through his kitchen last year to local fare and bringing farmers into cafeterias to trumpet it. That's more than a million dollars' worth of Ontario food, including all-organic Harmony milk, potatoes and Norfolk county apples.

In his pursuit to overhaul the university's menu, chef Lokker has become a star in the local food movement and an inspiration to many institutional chefs who are starting to cut through procurement-related red tape rather than stay bound by it. Recently, Mr. Lokker sat down with The Globe and Mail to explain his roadmap to success and what hurdles he sees on the local food horizon.

What made you a champion of local food?

I don't think it's something you learn to become. I think it's in you. All I'm doing is what we should have been doing all along - when I was an apprentice [25 years ago]I didn't see strawberries every day of the year. I saw them in June. When we saw fresh Pacific salmon, it was during the season. After that, it would come frozen. If you go back 20 years ago, we procured completely differently than what we do today. We need to revert back … planning menus around what's available seasonally. If you know you've got 1,000 people you've got to feed every week, it makes it a lot easier.

But you're not an advocate of local absolutism.

It's not going to work 100 per cent because we still want our coffee, our bananas, our sugar. We want vanilla for our desserts and we want oranges. You can't say to people: "You've got to stop eating those." What you can do is give them alternatives.

Is it tough to sell students on healthy food over poutine and pizza?

It's the opposite. They're actually demanding more healthy food. Now, we don't actually put French fries out unless you ask for them. This year we changed our soft drink fountains to a generic brand away from one of the big corporate soft drink companies. We've seen decreases in the amount of soft drinks consumed.

Wow. That's an unexpected shift. I would have predicted a backlash.

They're adults and they're entitled to having a soft drink if they want one. But when you go to university, it's about making changes and deciding how you want to live your life. I'm not going to tell you what to do. What we will do though, we'll make sure there are healthy choices available for you.

People often dismiss local food by saying it's more expensive. How have you kept your costs under control?

You'll hear that daycares or old age homes get $2 per meal. You've got to look at it on a larger scale - how do I take that value and spread it out over the week or over the month. If you're creative in the way you procure and in the way you develop your menus, you can actually do a wide offering of nutritious and local foods. We do a lot of negotiating with our growers, but that's the challenge - realizing there's a difference in price points and working my menus to accommodate that.

What advice do you have for other institutions pondering the transition to local?

It doesn't have to be all or nothing. That's the big thing. Even if you shift 10 or 5 per cent to buy more local, the impact would be huge. But you have to have the mindset to do it.

What was the most difficult part of your transition?

The first year was a challenge, but when we started doing this, we had only six farmers that were certified through Local Food Plus [a Toronto-based company that inspects and certifies farmers as local and sustainable] Now, there's a list of 70 or 80.

Is buying local going to get easier?

The more we're willing to work with our local partners, the more viable it's going to become for them and the better our pricing is going to get. Doing the right thing is not the easiest thing and it never will be. But once you do it, it becomes so easy and it becomes a part of your life.