Cheap eats: New 'affordable food market' winning customers over
Food security 'a bit of a passion project' for Alicia Clarkson at Moncton's Peter McKee Community Food Centre
While many may think of Moncton's Peter McKee Community Food Centre as "just a food bank," Alicia Clarkson is very busy trying to change that perception.
"We're trying to help people take control of their own food security," Clarkson said.
She's been the centre's community garden co-ordinator for less than six months but already has plans to keep the greenhouse open all year round and has started a weekly affordable food market.
Every Tuesday, Clarkson sets up her table of preserves, baked goods and fresh veggies in the lobby of the food centre, located on St. George Street.
"Having the ability to actually go and buy something when you're at the food bank adds ownership to your grocery routine — you can get real food for an extremely low cost," Clarkson said, standing behind her table filled with sweet pickled peppers, pickled carrots, homemade tomato soup and freshly baked cookies.
All of the money she raises at the market goes back to the food centre's community garden and kitchen programs.
Suzanne Melanson and Gary Griffiths are regular customers of the new market.
Melanson teaches a weekly "back-to-basics" cooking class in the community kitchen, while Griffiths lives around the corner and often shops at the thrift store that's also in the building.
This week Griffiths exchanged a $5 bill for a jar of strawberry jam and two dozen cookies.
"It's an excellent deal, that's why I'm here," he said. "I like the cookies 'cause I can't cook."
Griffiths takes a closer look at the pear chips that are just 50 cents.
"Never tried that before … pear chips."
Introducing people to new foods and new ways to prepare food is something Melanson loves about the centre.
Many cities have something similar, "but this is the first time that I've seen it where it's actually affordable," Melanson said.
"It gives people the chance to try something new every week."
Waste not, want not
In the spring, summer and fall, the market tables are heaped with fresh vegetables grown in the greenhouse, which is behind the centre.
In the winter, it is much more difficult to keep things growing and Clarkson turns her attention to "rescued" food from the food bank that would otherwise go to waste, to fill her table.
"A few weeks ago we had way more tomatoes than anyone could use and all the ones on the bottom of the pallets were bruised so nobody wanted them," she explained.
"So we went into the kitchen one afternoon, made a whole bunch of tomato soup, preserved it and were able to sell it at an extremely low cost."
Clarkson has also had success turning wilted romaine lettuce and spinach into pesto that was good enough "to eat with a spoon," she laughed.
"We pureed it with some olive oil, salt, lots of garlic and parmesan cheese and it's a really good pesto."
Food security a 'passion project'
Alicia Clarkson's path to the Peter McKee Community Food Centre wasn't a straight line.
When she started out as a student at the former Nova Scotia Agricultural College, her plan was to be a veterinarian.
An allergy to horses ended that dream, but luckily she loved plants as much as she loved animals and it was her green thumb that landed her at the Moncton food centre.
She started volunteering at the community garden, which consists of 32 garden boxes in the large greenhouse behind the food centre.
"Food security is something that's always been close to my heart," she said. "They say you can thank a doctor once a year and you thank a farmer three times a day … we need sustainable agriculture."
Clarkson plans to build some solar heaters for the greenhouse that will keep the temperature at about 5 C. That is warm enough to continue growing cold-tolerant plants such as broccoli, cabbage and brussels sprouts year round.
Of the 32 boxes in the greenhouse, 16 are used to grow food for the affordable food market and the food bank, and the remaining 16 are available at no cost to clients of the food bank.
"They can turn that three-by-eight-foot box into a year's worth of tomatoes," Clarkson said. "And then they come to our classes, they learn to can those tomatoes.
"Being able to show people that you can grow your own food, you can literally take your food security into your own hands, has become a bit of a passion project for me."
Clarkson said the greenhouse should be open in early April for gardeners to start their seeds, although she admits her favourite time of the year is summer.
"I am usually in here for seven o'clock in the morning during the summer and I'm weeding, watering, harvesting … I just love being outside and I love taking care of my plants."