Stakeholders behind a new, five-year food strategy for Donegal want the county to be famous for food.
To do that, they said, one of the strategic priorities will be to dramatically increase the number of artisan and added value food start-up producers in the county.
County Manager Seamus Neely, chairperson of the Donegal County Enterprise Board, said the goal of the strategy is to build on the collaboration that exists among stakeholders, “to grow the brand that is Donegal and to see food gaining respect so that the county becomes recognised as being synonymous with quality food,” in terms of producers, processors and cuisine.
“We want to make Donegal famous for food,” said Michael Tunney, chief executive officer of Donegal County Enterprise Board (CEB).
John Perry, TD, minister for small business, launched the strategy on Monday evening at Glenveagh Castle, Glenveagh National Park. The event was attended by representatives from all the sectors within the food industry in Donegal, including food producers and processors, restaurants and other food services, hotels, and local state agencies.
“The top priority of the Government is to get Ireland back to work. But we cannot do it alone,” Minister Perry said. “The initiative commissioned by Donegal County Enterprise Board to review the food sector in order to create a development strategy for the county, is a perfect example of how we need to co-operate.”
The minister described the strategy as “a road map” for creating more artisan food businesses, improving profitability and sustainability of existing food producers and increasing consumer education.
“This government will be with you every step of the way,” Minister Perry said.
The strategy launched on Monday stemmed from a 2009 gathering of stakeholders led by the Donegal County Enterprise Board that began to promote the county’s food agenda under the Food Coast brand. Activities since then have included start-your-own-food-business programmes, development of a seafood business programme, a food-branding workshop, food-focused festivals and events, CEB grant aid for 14 food businesses and CEB mentoring support for 29 food businesses.
In February of this year, the enterprise board, after reviewing the Food Coast initiative, commissioned James Burke and Associates to develop a strategy. Mr. Burke, speaking at the launch, said they spoke with more than 100 people, individually and in focus groups, in developing the plan.
“It is your strategy,” Mr. Burke said, adding, “The onus is to take it from here and do what you will with it.”
Mr. Burke said Donegal has some “very fine artisan producers”. He said Cork, with its strong reputation for quality food, has a 35-year lead in the field.
“Don’t worry that you’re on an early rung of the ladder,” he said.
In addition to increasing artisan producers, strategic priorities include increasing sales revenue and profitability of existing producers; encouraging restaurants, hotels, retailers and other food service operators to source more locally produced ingredients; appointing a food co-ordinator to drive the strategy implementation for three years; targeting financial supports to the priorities and improving consumer education and marketing of Donegal as a food region.
“We set the bar relatively high for ourselves,” Mr. Tunney said.
Mr. Tunney also introduced the audience to Donegal’s first Food Ambassador, chef Gary O’Hanlon, head chef at VM Restaurant at Viewmount House in Longford. Donegal audiences will recognise the Ramelton man from his many cooking appearances on RTÉ. His work as a chef also took him to Boston for many years.
The ambassador will promote food from Donegal at the national and international level and advise in delivery of the strategy.
“I’ve always endorsed Ireland and I’ve always been a great advocate for local food, even in Boston,” Mr. O’Hanlon said later. He said the ethos of using locally produced ingredients, “should just be one of those things that comes naturally to most chefs”.
The strategy identifies 83 key priority actions to be delivered in the next five years, and Mr. Tunney said the next step will come when the stakeholder advisory committee meets in September to identify initiatives that can be undertaken in the first six months.
Mr. Neely acknowledged that the strategy represented a challenging vision. But he told those at the launch that the board would work with stakeholders to ensure the vision was realised.
After the speakers finished, guests enjoyed a buffet of Donegal savoury and sweet treats from food providers, cooks, chefs and bakers around the county.
Speaking earlier in the evening, Mr. Burke said that Donegal was well placed to take advantage of the interest in food tourism.
“You have the scenery,” he said. “You have the beginnings of a food culture.”
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