Karen Burson, co-founder/operator, Crystle Numan, co-founder/operator, Kiera Aynes, volunteer
Phone Interview June 27, 2011 (Lisa Ohberg), Site Visit August 17, 2011 (Lisa Ohberg)
* Good food box program that grew from supplying a few boxes to a hundred in a few months
* Development trajectory that will include multiple types of boxes targeted at different demographics throughout the food box network
* Developing through a model designed to create financial self-sustainability
Good food box programs try to connect people with healthy, fresh produce at an affordable cost and exist across Ontario. Interested in starting a good food box in Hamilton, Burson conducted research on this model particularly looking at Foodshare’s good food box in Toronto. A good food box program had been operating successfully in Hamilton by the Grace Lutheran Church for a many years explains Numan, “but of course they could only serve their area, their vision was not to get much bigger…Grace Lutheran was getting to their capacity for their produce provider and their ability to deliver their boxes”. When the food box started, Numan worked at the Welcome Inn which serves people “who have problems fully purchasing and accessing enough food” through their food bank and so the goals of a food box “very much fit” with her work.
Burson and Numan started the good food box program working on a volunteer basis in January 2011, with the Welcome Inn as one of their “anchor depots”, explains Numan, “while writing a grant [application] in order to expand it” under the organizational umbrella of Environment Hamilton, where Burson is employed. Through the process of writing the grant, Burson and Numan developed a bigger concept to include a mechanism in the food box program to allow it to be self-sustaining, as Burson had found in her research that the “sustainability [of the food box program] becomes difficult if its not part of something a little bigger”, explains Numan.
At present the food box is distributed through a few targeted depot locations in the community. The pick up locations correspond with other community services such as the St. Joseph Home Care and the Welcome Inn to target those populations that face challenges accessing enough healthy, fresh produce in a non-stigmatizing way. Customers pay an affordable price for their box, but the entire fee is used to purchase the produce. Staff time, space and other resources are volunteered. The box is distributed monthly, and volunteers meet at a church hall to pack the produce delivered by their supplier and load the boxes into the truck.
Burson and Numan were successful in their grant application and have received a Grant from the Healthy Communities Fund from the Ontario Ministry of Sport and Health Promotion to expand the good food box network. The expansion work will occur over the year 2011-2012 to correspond with the duration of the grant. Burson and Numan hope to include a second good food box that emphasizes locally grown produce. This box will cost more than the standard box to reflect the higher prices required to pay a fair price to local farmers, as well as the premium for receiving a higher percentage of local produce. Pick up locations or depots through which the local boxes will be distributed are intended to be large companies or places of employment in order to target the demographic who is money rich and time poor so to speak. This box will appeal to the middle working class who would like to support local farmers but doesn’t have the time to shop at farmers markets or farm gates and can’t find local produce consistently in the supermarket. The higher price charged for the local food box will generate a profit in addition to the price of the produce that can be used to fund the staff time or other necessities to run the food box network.
Burson and Numan would also like to offer a third box, one that would include pre-portioned and prepared servings of produce targeting time-strapped, health conscious clientele, or those who might have difficulty with home food preparation. “In the ‘cut up’ box,” explains Numan, “hopefully we’re also going to be able to make that a social enterprise that’s going to provide paid work for people” by stimulating the need for this type of food processing capacity in Hamilton.
Burson and Numan themselves are indispensible resources to the food box network. Burson’s vision and dedication along with the willingness of both Burson and Numan to dedicate their unpaid time to the food box allowed the project to materialize. In addition, Burson’s history as a employee of Environment Hamilton as the coordinator for their Eat Local Hamilton project has meant that she has a large number of contacts in the city relating to local food. Similarly, Numan’s work with the Welcome Inn had provided her with many contacts relating to emergency food access. This plethora of community contacts has greatly eased the implementation of the local food box network. Volunteers make the food box possible, as it is volunteers who pack the box each month. The driver also volunteers his time out of support for the food box network and “likeminded thinking” explains Numan.
This summer, the food box network also had the time of Aynes, a Katimavik intern working with the good food box network through her volunteer placement at Environment Hamilton. Aynes had been working to create a website and brochure content that will provide information for potential food box customers relating to how they can purchase a food box and where they can pick it up. The website will also have a “site coordinator’s package”, explains Numan, “so that people who would like to be depot sites know exactly what they need to do and how to get started”.
Originally, Burson and Numan approached the supplier of the food box program run out of Grace Lutheran Church to supply the good food box network. That supplier was at his capacity supplying Grace Lutheran’s food box, but referred Burson and Numan to their current supplier, who is a “small scale produce distributor”, who “also understands local food”, says Numan. The supplier has made connections to local farms and “understands our desires to have as much local [produce] as possible”, says Numan, but also has the capacity to purchase from the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto if need be. The supplier’s existing warehousing capacity and distribution logistics means that the capacity exists for him to “scale up when we need to”, explains Numan.
Working with a local supplier enhances and reinforces the increased business the food box will bring to Hamilton. The food box, Numan explains, “is a great way to increase [the supplier’s] business by us starting to buy from him, helping and even encouraging him to develop more connections with farmers, [which] means more jobs in Hamilton that are local jobs…we’re paying [the supplier] fair value…because we don’t want him to go out of business to support this, we want to be supporting local businesses”.
Physical and Natural Resources
Currently the food box is packed monthly in St. Luke’s Parish Hall in Hamilton. St. Luke’s provides the space free of charge for this purpose. The boxes are currently packed in reusable IKEA bags, which are reused for packing and delivering the boxes month to month. Hamilton’s soil and climate are favorable to the cultivation of a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, and is within close proximity of other regions in Southern Ontario that grow produce for a fairly long season. For this reason it is easier for the food box to obtain a variety of fruits and vegetables as well as source a fair amount of it locally. Once the food boxes are packed, they are delivered to the pick up depots in a truck that belongs to the North Hamilton Welcome Inn for use by its Food Bank to pick up donated food. The truck is not used by the Welcome Inn on Wednesdays, so the boxes are packed and delivered on Wednesdays and pays mileage to the Welcome Inn for the use of its truck to do so.
Burson and Numan applied for a Grant from the Healthy Communities Fund under Environment Hamilton, the non-profit organization for whom Burson works fulltime as the program coordinator for the Eat Local Hamilton project. They were successful and obtained a one-year grant for which payments started in June 2011. The grant funds Burson and Numan’s staff time. Numan explains that the Good Food Box is also receiving, “gift in kind time from Trivaris, which is a…business consulting firm that also does social enterprise focuses”. Trivaris will work with the Good Food Box Network to help them “develop a business plan for what actually is possible” in order to help them realize their goals to expand the Good Food Box into a network of financially self-sustaining box programs.
“Churches are a great resource,” says Numan. St. Luke’s parish provides the space for monthly box packing free of charge. The Grace Lutheran Church runs a food box “as a ministry, which adds to its sustainability there”, explains Numan but which is operating at its capacity. The coordinators of the food box at the church provided knowledge and support when Burson was researching the food box model, sharing their expertise. In addition, their supplier provided the connection between the Good Food Box Network and its current supplier.
The North Hamilton Welcome Inn facilitated connections to other needed community resources through Numan’s work with them. The Welcome Inn provides the food box with its truck for example, and St. Luke’s Parish Hall is already used for one of the Welcome Inn’s community programs, so St. Luke’s was willing to allow the good food box to use the space as well.
Numan identified that the well established network of community resources in Hamilton was instrumental in the success of the food box: “Hamilton likes to work together, likes to connect and collaborate and there are neighborhood hubs all across the city that are already working and strengthening and being in communities that we just can drop and say, ‘would you like to be a drop site [for food box delivery] and they’ve got people there that can make it happen”.
Policy and Program Resources
The Healthy Communities Fund from the Ontario Ministry of Sport and Health Promotion was a program resource that Burson and Numan were able to tap into through their successful application for a grant.
Although the remarkable amount of community connectedness that exists in Hamilton was acknowledged as an asset, Numan expressed a desire to continue to create and further those connections, and strengthen the network of community resources in Hamilton. The Hamilton Good Food Box Network is extremely grateful for the in kind support provided by St. Luke’s parish by allowing them to use their parish hall space free of charge for monthly box packing. If the box program were to expand however, a larger space potentially better equipped to handle food box packing and logistics might be desired.
When asked about constraints, Numan identified working within a space not ideally suited to food box packing as one: “we need to look at what is the best facility space and how we can get that for a cost that is possible, whether that be in kind or if we need to pay. The space is not bad, but it has stairs…but we’re making it work because for now its very cost effective for us”.
The food box network has been operating for a relatively short time (at the time of writing) but with each month the box is distributed, Burson and Numan strive to improve the process and the box: “[their supplier] has been learning with us,” says Numan, “of what works and doesn’t work in the boxes, what kind of quality is needed, and how to make it the most amount of food that we can get at a quality that is needed”. When they received feedback that the clients did not know how to cook a particular fruit or vegetable and thus were not getting their full benefit from the box, they stopped ordering that item.
A continuing challenge is the amount of staff time available to dedicate to the organization of the box. This obstacle was partially overcome by receiving Healthy Communities Fund Grant funds, which secured Burson and Numan’s staff time in a part-time paid capacity instead of a volunteer capacity. Even part-time, says Numan, “its hard to make sure that everything is being kept on track and we’re still developing our systems and so sometimes there’s missteps with ordering or with how many boxes left, and so we’re working on double counting, making sure that we have the exact number that needs to go out on the truck.”
The good food box network has grown in a very short time, going from supplying just a few boxes in January 2011 when it started to approximately a hundred (with monthly fluctuations) six months later. When asked about the successes the food box network has had Numan said, “we’ve grown, and we’ve been able to manage it and we’ve been nimble enough to adjust when people say ‘well you really shouldn’t put this in the box because nobody knew how to eat it’… so we’ve been able to adjust and grow.” The ability to adapt to the needs of the community is critical in the long-term success of the food box program.
When asked what the relevance of the local food box network is to other local food initiatives, Numan emphasized the importance of building and utilizing a supportive network of community connections and resources. Numan stressed the importance of “building those connections if they’re not already there, using them if they are there, and really developing them as much as you can at the beginning so that it’s a community box you know, its something that the community is doing”.
Secondly, Burson and Numan are striving to create the good food box network in a way that emphasizes “the sustainability piece”, being the ability to be financially self-sustaining. Burson’s vision of a food box network that offers multiple types of boxes and targets different demographics through depot site choice is one part of the solution. The vision also includes a model for producing revenue that will support the entire endeavor, such as the local food boxes administered through places of work subsidizing the costs of the affordable box, and the pre-portioned box creating stable jobs in processing.
The second way in which Burson and Numan’s model for creating the good food box includes ‘the sustainability piece’ is through the creation of a business plan. By working with Trivaris, Burson and Numan will develop a business plan to identify what is feasible within the abovementioned vision and what the network needs to do for the operation to be financially self-sustaining. “They’re [Trivaris] going to be key, I think, for helping us find out what is the sustainability point, and how do we get from where we are to there,” says Numan.