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Catherine O’Gorman is a bilingual public policy and communications professional who works in public affairs, and in a thriving family-run business in Ontario’s agri-food sector. Catherine can be contacted at catherine@grassrootspa.ca.

Six months ago, I left my policy job with Ontario Public Service, packed up my life in downtown Toronto, and drove to 2.5 hours east to Prince Edward County to begin a new chapter in the agri-food sector with my fiancé.

During my time at Queen’s Park, I worked in the heart of policy development in the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) at the Policy Priorities and Coordination Office, and I loved it! I worked on diverse files including leading the ministry’s participation in municipal conferences, facilitating policy development workshops, evaluating funding applications, providing expertise on ministry priorities and Cabinet committee processes, and providing policy and legislative support to the Minister, Deputy Minister and senior ministry executives.

Last February, my fiancé and I took a huge leap of faith; I left my job at MTO and he left his law practice to move to his hometown and work in his family business, Sprague Foods. His parents are the fourth generation of Sprague’s since the company was established in 1925 and we now work alongside them as the fifth generation. Sprague Foods is family owned and operated and specializes in producing canned soups and beans.

COVID-19: A Surge in Demand

COVID-19 has drastically impacted demand for canned foods. At the beginning of the pandemic, due to supply chain disruptions, demand for canned goods skyrocketed to levels comparable to World War II. Little did we know when we moved in February that a tidal wave of change was coming for our business. Turns out, the timing for our move was perfect. The pandemic surge in demand meant that I quickly started learning about the agri-food industry from a manufacturing perspective and its range of challenges – from supply chain management and managing ingredient or raw material shortages, to regulatory and legislative procedures that are specific to food processing.

Melding Policy Skills with Food Processing

In this new environment I have learned about the importance of relationships across the supply chain, from farmers who produce our ingredients, to truck drivers who deliver finished goods across the country, to the frontline workers who put our product on grocery store shelves. Every part of the supply chain is integral to ensuring Canadians have access to food, especially during a pandemic. This new life gives me a unique opportunity to combine my hands-on agri-food experience with my policy background, which helps me navigate legislative and regulatory challenges and secure government funding.

For example, throughout my work across different levels of government, I often evaluated funding applications from companies and stakeholder groups for a diverse range of programs. Using this practical experience, I drafted Sprague Food’s application for funding through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership and successfully secured $75,000 from the provincial and federal government for product development. Our proposal was one of 75 projects chosen across Ontario to help strengthen the province’s crucial agri-food supply chain.

Agri-Food and Advocacy

The combination of my prior government experience and current involvement with agri-food gives me a unique perspective as I support the team at Grassroots Public Affairs. I understand the challenges of the agri-food sector and the unbelievable stress the pandemic has put on the supply chain.  Now, more than ever, it is important that both the provincial and federal government support the food processing and agri-food sector to protect our food supply and support local growers and producers. It is vital that the agri-food sector is a government priority both during and after the pandemic.