Why a Calgary non-profit wants you to buy its discount produce — even if you can afford more

Sophie Walchuk gets off at the Sunalta CTrain station each day, so a new program that started there recently has the southwest Calgary resident smiling from ear to ear.

“On my way home, if I forget something or want to try something new, I can just pick it up and go on my way,” Walchuk told CBC News in an interview.

She’s talking about Fresh Routes, a pop-up produce market that offers fruits and veggies at up to 45 per cent less than a standard grocery store — all at the base of her train station.

“I think these guys are doing a wonderful job. They are just really good community people. This is their way of helping. I really appreciate it because it keeps my food costs down.”

Sophie Walchuk inspects the quality of produce at a pop-up market at the base of her southwest LRT station. (David Bell/CBC)

Keeping costs down is a challenge more than ever as the effects of COVID reach into supply chains and other areas not understood before.

One estimate puts a year-over-year hike in the cost of food for a family of four at a whopping $220 per month.

That’s part of what Fresh Routes — a non-profit social enterprise that launched in 2019 just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit — is hoping to address.

Nikita Scringer is city manager for Fresh Routes, which serves seven markets in Calgary and nearby First Nations. (Zoom)

Nikita Scringer, city manager for Fresh Routes, says it’s about using economies of scale to deliver good quality produce at low prices in spaces that are convenient for everyone, including people with financial challenges.

“You can go to a fast food restaurant and get a cheap meal, but it’s not the best for you. It’s not giving you those nutrients, and it’s not going to sustain you throughout the day,” Scringer said.

Providing those nutrients for sustenance is what Fresh Routes is all about.

“We know how hard it is for some families to be able to get a meal on the table, let alone getting something that is hitting all those major food groups. That’s what we are trying to do,” she said.

“We want to be able to provide people with a sense of dignity and pride. We know Calgarians work hard and every cent counts, but the ability to choose the fruits and veggies you want, and will actually eat and enjoy, gives people that great sense of dignity, and it also helps with food waste.”

In CBC Calgary’s series focusing  on the cost of food, several people said finding affordable places to buy food is more important than getting a free food hamper.

An assistant professor of social work says it’s good to offer a variety of options to reduce food insecurity.

“When folks can afford to offer some money in return for something at a lower cost, it feels better,” Christina Tortorelli of Mount Royal University told CBC News in an interview.

“It feels like they are taking care of their family rather than asking for a handout. We often talk about handout and hand up but I think there is a whole range. Filling that continuum with a variety of options for families is really important.”

Christina Tortorelli, an assistant professor of social work at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says offering a hand up is often more appreciated than a handout. (Submitted by Christina Tortorelli)

A Fresh Routes route operator is happy to help with the hand up option.

“I love it. It’s a feel-good job,” Carma Buchholz-Campbell said.

“I drive the truck, I bring the produce, I open the market. I get to hang out with all the customers. I get to meet and talk to people. I get a lot of customers, if they are well off, they will donate, they will help other people pay their bill. It’s a lot of helping each other.”

Carma Buchholz-Campbell is a route operator with the non-profit Fresh Routes. It provides produce at up to 45 per cent less than a standard grocery store, at pop-up locations, such as LRT stations, that are convenient to people with reduced incomes. (David Bell/CBC)

Meanwhile, Scringer says Fresh Routes was forced to scale back a little after their initial launch in 2019, as some sources of funding and private donations have dried up or tapered off.

A presence in Edmonton was put on pause, leaving the Calgary operation to serve seven markets — four in the city and three in nearby First Nations — but they are still serving up to 1,000 customers every week.

“We are going to keep expanding, adding more markets as we see the need,” Scringer said.

“There certainly is the need in Calgary. We hope to expand back into Edmonton, and we hope to venture out into other cities, Alberta first, but then across the country. We’d love to see a Fresh Routes in lots of major cities. That’s a long-term goal.”

Fresh Routes has markets at the following Calgary locations, but check their schedule in case of changes:

  • Alex Community Food Centre — 4920 17th Ave. S.E.
  • Greenwood Village Dome — 122 Spruce Way N.W.
  • Hillhurst Sunnyside Community Association — 1320 5th Ave. N.W
  • Sunalta CTrain Station — 1706C 10th Ave. S.W.

Carma Buchholz-Campbell stocks the pop-up produce market she runs at the Sunalta LRT station on Tuesday afternoon. (David Bell/CBC)


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