Neighbours across Calgary create mini depots selling veggie boxes at wholesale prices

Customers say produce from the Good Food Box is roughly half the cost of what the big grocery stores charge, with volunteers staffing 130 pickup spots across the city.

'It really encourages my family to eat more fruits and vegetables,' says customer

The Good Food Box program has been quietly putting affordable produce on the table for Calgary families for about 16 years. (CBC)

Once a month, Susan Gwynn turns her small northeast Calgary bungalow into a mini grocery store.

Boxes with apples, potatoes and even mangos get stacked up in her garage, and a small stream of Martindale neighbours pop by for their orders.

Because it's a fixed box and a bulk order, Gwynn and other customers say prices on the fresh produce come in at roughly half of what the big chain stores charge with no compromise on quality.

"I buy one box for my family and another one or two boxes for other community members who just can't afford it, to have fresh produce in their lives," Gwynn said.

"It makes them feel remembered."

Susan Gwynn is a volunteer and depot co-ordinator with the Good Food Box program in Calgary. (CBC)

Gwynn is not alone in this. She's a volunteer and her mini grocery store is run through Community Kitchens, which now has roughly 130 depots like this across the city. 

The Good Food Box program offers anyone on a tight budget the option of buying in for a cheaper meal. It's been flagged by multiple people as a solid option for families during CBC Calgary's focus on the increasing cost of food

It offers staple foods and can often be delivered for a small fee. The only downside, said community members participating through a CBC texting app, is that you can't pick what goes in the box and it might be too much food for a couple or individual.

'Seeing the smiles … changes everything'

Gwynn's 20-year-old daughter wanted to get involved, too.

"I think it's important for families to have lots of fresh vegetables and fruits," Hannah Gwynn said.

"Seeing the smiles and knowing the fridges are full and when they go to school, they are not hungry, it changes everything."

Benton Deschamps is a volunteer with the Good Food Box program. (CBC)

Hannah's boyfriend, Benton Deschamps, says volunteering makes him feel good.

"The stories you hear from people with experience in poverty, it inspires me to do more of it, volunteering, and to help out as much as I can," the 20-year-old said, adding there's also a practical side of the program for him.

"It's really nice to think of all the recipes you can make with what's in the box. It gets the creative juices flowing when you look at it."

As a customer of the program, Chelsea Haines is thrilled the Gwynn family wants to help the community.

"I like that I get a whole lot of fresh produce all at once, and it really encourages my family to eat more fruits and vegetables," said Haines.

"When you have all that produce at once, you are encouraged to eat it. It's there and it will go bad if you don't."

Chelsea Haines has been a customer of the Good Food Box program since September of last year. (CBC)

Conversations about what to do, for example, with five pounds of potatoes, those are now the norm in her kitchen.

The Good Food Box program has small, medium and large boxes, at $25, $30 and $35, respectively. Those boxes contain between 20 and 45 pounds of fresh produce, depending on the size.

The boxes contain staples like potatoes, carrots and onions, along with seasonal offerings like pomegranates and avocados.

Sundae Nordin is the CEO at the Community Kitchen Program of Calgary, which runs the Good Food Box among other programs. (Zoom)

Sundae Nordin, head of the Community Kitchen Program of Calgary, which manages the Good Food Box program, says there is a huge amount of work behind the scenes.

"We average about 2,600 volunteers at Community Kitchens per year," Nordin told CBC News in an interview.

But volunteers are just one piece of the food-box puzzle.

"From the vendor to the purchaser, to the warehouse people, to the volunteers that build them, to the drivers who pick up and deliver, to the volunteers who distribute them, to the clients to just enjoy and have good food on their tables that is affordable."

17,000 boxes delivered last year

The Good Food Box program has been around for about 16 years, and while the program operates weekly, individual depots can offer boxes less frequently.

Community Kitchen gathers preorders from depots and sources the best price from around seven or eight suppliers. The depots then collect and distribute boxes to customers. More than 1,000 boxes went out in one week late last month, and roughly 17,000 boxes hit the tables of Calgary families in 2020.

There is no income cutoff for people interested in ordering a box.

Nordin says it's helping many families struggling to make ends meet.

"Poverty is looking very different, especially in these last three or four years. It brings a lot of anxiety and fear, for a parent who can't feed their children. If the kids aren't eating, the parents aren't eating, most likely. How do you make proper decisions when you aren't eating?"

Nordin says one out of 10 Alberta families is going hungry.

"I feel the pandemic has really brought food insecurity to the surface," she said.

Meanwhile, back at Gwynn's mini grocery store, she says it's important for people to have access to affordable food they want, not just to a free hamper that might not have what they need.

"Dignity is one of those things that people are not afforded unless you have the money to buy dignity. That's not fair. We need to give people dignity as an inherent right," she said.

"The cost of poverty is driving our economy into the ground. Fix it, and you won't have that expense. The ship just rightens itself.

"There is no shame in food insecurity. If you are experiencing food insecurity, if like so many other Calgarians, you are struggling, it's OK. Talk to somebody. Ask somebody for help. It's OK. There are tons of people willing to help and get you through it."

CBC Calgary: The High Cost of Food

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