By Naomi Mahaffy
Many Calgarians are foodies, taking pride and joy in the city’s diverse food offerings—including an expanding array of health foods and local and organic produce. Not all Calgarians have the same opportunities when it comes to food, however; urban sprawl, financial disparity, and transportation access make it more challenging for many residents to purchase affordable and nutritious food on a regular basis.
Fresh Routes’ Mobile Food Market is a community-driven grocery store on wheels that increases the availability of healthy and affordable foods in Calgary’s underserved neighbourhoods. It began this past May as an initiative of the Leftovers Foundation, and recently incorporated as an independent not-for-profit social enterprise.
Fresh Routes’ goals are:
Increase access (physical, geographical, financial, educational) to fresh, high quality, culturally-appropriate fruits and vegetables for residents in identified food deserts in Calgary.
Reduce social isolation and increase sense of belonging in communities.
Enhance food literacy and skills.
Fresh Routes was founded by Anna Johnson, Rob Ironside, and Lourdés Juan. They work alongside a small team of paid market leads, an assortment of community partners, and an army of passionate volunteers. I sat down with Anna to hear more about the Fresh Routes story and lessons learned.
Last spring, the City of Calgary provided start-up funds for a mobile food market pilot. Leftovers Foundation used these funds to retrofit a truck, and worked in partnership with city social workers to decide which communities to work with for their pilot markets. Factors they considered included: proximity to grocery stories, density of low income and senior residents, and barriers to food access. In May, they started running weekly mobile markets in four neighbourhoods. The markets were volunteer-run, stocked produce purchased from wholesalers, and offered prices equal to or below those at regular grocery stores.
Responses to the mobile market pilots were incredibly positive. More neighbourhoods began reaching out to Leftovers to ask for mobile markets in their communities. New partnerships enabled Fresh Routes (which recently registered as a separate social enterprise) to retrofit decommissioned city buses and bring mobile markets to strategic locations like transit stations, community centers, and universities. This also meant they could continue serving customers over the winter, by moving their markets inside buses and buildings where people and produce could be sheltered from the cold weather.
An Evolving Model
The weekly mobile markets continue to evolve. They are still mainly volunteer-run, with one paid market lead for each market (responsible for driving, managing cash, and picking up produce). Volunteers, often staff or residents from the host communities (such as staff at the Alex Community Health Centre, seniors from a nearby residence, or students from campus), enjoy the opportunity to connect with their community and earn market credits in return for their time.
The mobile markets are currently operating in 12 locations each week. Fresh Routes only operates in areas without existing affordable grocery options, as they want to go where need is greatest and where they won’t be taking customers away from other local alternatives. New market locations typically begin with a three-month pilot funded by the community or a local partner. If successful, the market can often continue to operate without subsidies after that first three months. Funding from the City of Calgary and Nutrien has helped Fresh Roots expand, work more closely with communities, and offer store credits to volunteers.
The Fresh Routes team is still working to improve consistency and variety in their market offerings. They order produce every morning, paying careful attention to price so that they can keep their food as affordable as possible. This means that different produce may be available from week to week, depending on price and availability (a drawback for customers who expect consistency). Over time, Fresh Routes is working to add staple food items such as eggs, lentils, and beans. They also hope to add resources to help customers improve their food literacy.
As Fresh Routes grows and evolves, here are a few of the things they’re learning:
Adopt and adapt. The Fresh Routes team drew on insights and expertise from established social enterprises, such as the Halifax Mobile Food Market and Aki Foods. They spent a lot of time deciding on the best legal structure for their organization, drawing on expertise from organizations like Thrive.
Partnerships are powerful. With the right partners on board, Fresh Routes has been able to access more communities and be more responsive to community needs. A partnership with BrandVan, for example, has provided access to a suite of creative professionals who are volunteering their time and talent to build the FreshRoutes brand. Partnerships with the city have given Fresh Routes access to decommissioned buses, common spaces, and social workers who know the community.
Language matters. “Fresh Routes” rather than “Leftovers;” “Sunday’s bread” rather than “day old bread.” These subtle differences emphasize the dignity of Fresh Routes’ customers and the value of the products being sold.
Be humble. Own your mistakes and learn from them. Anna described one situation in which Fresh Routes partnered with Calgary transit and began operating across the street from the Sunalta Community Association, without first partnering with and listening to the community. They quickly realized they had moved too quickly, without creating relationships with the local grocery store and community association and figuring out how to work together. Upon realizing their mistake, Fresh Routes immediately did what they could to build relationships and make sure the mobile market was responsive to the unique dynamics of the community.
Be prepared to make tough decisions. Fresh Routes has turned down communities where the need for affordable and healthy food is not as pronounced, or where they might be undermining other grocery stores. They want to stay true to their goals and purpose.
Reducing barriers takes ongoing work and careful design. The first designs for the mobile market didn’t clearly communicate that it was a food market—particularly for those who were visually impaired—leading to some confusion and missed opportunities. Fresh Routes is working to increase accessibility of its markets for people with limited mobility, vision, and/or English literacy.
Fresh Routes is always looking for volunteers, advice, partners, funding opportunities… and currently, solar panels! Get in touch (email@example.com) to learn more about Fresh Routes and to find out how you can help.
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