All my husband and I knew about the fresh box was that Eden Food for Change bought fruits and vegetables wholesale and sold them at cost to the general public. While we thought that this charitable organization was established to help low-income families, a middle class person such as myself could enjoy these savings and services as much as someone who was in need.  Without knowing the inner workings of the program, we had a few interesting questions in mind.

Some background

Who funds Eden Food for Change?

Eden Food for Change is a non-profit, charitable organization funded by United Way Peel Region and the Ontario Trillium Foundation. As far as I know (please correct me if I am wrong here), United Way works by raising a pool of donations and then distributing it to member organizations of their various community offices. Eden Food for Change is one of the organizations served by the Peel Region. The Ontario Trillium Foundation, on the other hand, works in the same way by providing financial grants to community organizations. United Way and Trillium differ in that the latter is funded by the Government of Ontario. Eden Food for Change is also funded by cash and in-kind private and public donations.

We wondered how exactly the Fresh Box Program operated. Did it cost them money to operate it – money donated and provided for more pressing community issues? Did they make money from it? These questions were left unanswered.

A shift in focus: “Good Food for All!”

In the spring of 2014, Eden Food for Change changed their mission statement to:

[We are] committed to increasing access to good food in a dignified manner, developing food skills to encourage healthy eating and empowering the community through education, outreach and advocacy.

A small food bank was established in 1989 when the members of Eden United Church noticed that there were hungry families in the community. Over the years this grew to what we most recently know as Eden Community Food Bank, a food bank servicing West Mississauga.

In 2014, they started a Community Learning Kitchen that offers cooking classes to food bank clients, allowing them to learn useful kitchen skills to make healthy, delicious, low-cost food at home. In January 2014, they started the Fresh Box Program. They changed their name to “Eden Food for Change” just this May 2015 to better reflect all the work they now do.

Our doubts

  1. Why did they change their vision/mission in spring 2014 (deviating from the traditional food bank model to a more community-wide food centre model)?
  2. Why do they subsidize “regular people’s” groceries rather than focus on those in need?
  3. Do donors of United Way and taxpayers of Ontario (through Ontario Trillium Foundation) know that their money is being used in this way? Why does the government of Ontario go through a non-profit organization to provide healthy, affordable food to the public, rather than taking the responsibility themselves?

Given that I couldn’t even get a hold of someone to verify that they got my order for the fresh box, I hesitated to contact their staff to get some answers. But I gave it a go anyway and fired some emails.

Lo and behold, Executive Director Bill Crawford himself responded to my questions the very next day.

DPL: “Why did you change your vision/mission in spring 2014 (deviating from the traditional food bank model to a more community-wide food centre model)?”

BC: “Our vision and mission change[d] in early 2014 as part of a year-long transition to reposition the organization operationally to better respond to the needs of hungry families in our community. We realized that we had become more than a food bank. We are still and always will be a food bank but it has become a part of a bigger whole of all that we do. Our programs now include those that respond to long-term needs in a more permanent and sustainable way. At Eden Food for Change we provide people struggling with limited financial resources with the food they need for today, as well as the tools and skills so that they can put healthy food on their tables tomorrow.”

DPL: “Why subsidize “regular people’s” groceries rather than focus on those in need?”

BC: “We do focus on those in need, particular in our food bank programs, but our fresh produce box program is also available for families who access the food bank as well [as] low-income families in the community. People can access the food bank once a month. The fresh produce box program makes it possible for our food bank families to access fresh fruits and vegetables at an affordable price in the off weeks. Even when you are getting help, it makes you feel better about your situation when you are able to pay for something that your family needs. Our expansion to various pick up locations is to make the program more accessible particularly to low-income families who have difficulty getting to our Unity office to pick up their box. Making the program open to everyone in the community helps us achieve a consistent base to allow for the program to continue and, when it can be accessed by everyone, it reduces the stigma of those in need to be involved.”

DPL: “Do donors of United Way and taxpayers of Ontario (through Ontario Trillium Foundation) know that their money is being used to “subsidize regular people’s groceries”? Why does the government of Ontario go through a non-profit organization to provide healthy, affordable food to the public, rather than taking the responsibility themselves?”

BC: “The funds we receive from United Way, Trillium or any funder (public or private) are not used for the Fresh Produce Box program. They are program-specific funding covering our other programs. For example the United Way funds we receive help to cover the cost of our cooking classes in the Learning Kitchen. The cost of the boxes covers the cost of providing the program – both the cost of the purchased food from the Ontario Food Terminal and our operational expenses which is mostly the cost of using the truck in support of the program. Neither do we use any donated product in the boxes. All of our donated produce is distributed through the food bank. In addition, any leftover produce not put into boxes at the end of the day is also donated to the food bank and distributed to hungry families. The Fresh Produce Box Program is also not a fundraiser for Eden Food for Change. You are not supporting the organization’s other programming when you purchase a box. The cost of the box pays for the program. If anyone wants to support our other programs then they should make a donation.

While the Ontario Trillium Foundation (an arms-length organization of the Ontario government) does not fund the Fresh Produce Box program, they currently fund our Learning Kitchen programs specifically our Seed to Fork program that we do in collaboration with Ecosource. As to the rest of the question, I can’t speak for the government of Ontario, but I can say that one of purposes of the Trillium Foundation is to build capacity in people to better support and provide for themselves and their funding helps us to do that.”

Other relevant questions answered in an FAQ sheet he sent me:

Q: How do you make money?

A: The Fresh Produce Box Program is a self-sustaining program. $9 out of every $10 members pay per box goes toward the wholesale purchasing of produce to fill the boxes. The remaining $1 is put toward operational costs. The Fresh Produce Box is a non-for-profit program that strives to get healthy food at an affordable price out into the community. As long as we can keep the program going, we are reaching our goals.

Q: Do you make a profit?

A: No, the Fresh Produce Box does not make a profit. The program is self-sustaining insofar as we can continue our operations. However, we are dependent on the help of our amazing volunteers and other community members. We also use the resources that are available to us, such as the truck from our food bank operation.

GREAT! I was very pleased by these responses.

In summary

Here’s what they got going for them:

  1. The program is self-sustaining in terms of costs. They don’t use or make any money from it.
  2. They do not use funding provided by charitable donations and government financial aid to fuel this program available to the general public.
  3. They just require the help of their volunteers to keep this program going.

Another question remained

So about the volunteers… was this program impinging on a volunteer resource intended to serve those in need?

To answer this question I spoke with Peter Costello, Director of Operation Food Skills at Eden. He cleared with me that the fresh box brings in its own volunteers, not those intended for the food bank. In fact, too many people in the community want to help the food bank that they even have a wait list for volunteers.

My husband, still on the fence about the volunteer issue, wondered how much volunteer time went into each box. If he really wanted to be ethically sound about this, he said that he would volunteer that amount of time every time he purchased a fresh box. Mr. Costello said that they’ve streamlined and made their process so efficient that it was down to a few minutes per box. For example, last week he and his six volunteers put together 536 boxes over two hours. Even if you added an hour to each volunteer’s time to account for getting to the food terminal and to their office, I calculated two minutes per box! So if you want to “call it even” and volunteer a Friday with Mr. Costello, it would be for six months’ worth of weekly fresh boxes.

Other useful and positive information

  • Each week they are able to donate a whopping 500 to 1,200 pounds of fruits and vegetables to the food bank from surplus from the food terminal.
  • On average they sell 400 to 550 boxes per week.
  • They aspire to able to expand the program and supply 1,200 boxes per week over the next year or two.

Mr. Costello remarked, “Everybody wins here. The only one losing is Galen Weston.”

Take that, Loblaw’s!

My friend Rohit, the person who referred me to this program, calls it “revolutionary” as there is no other program like this in the city (or even Ontario?). Rohit has worked for another food bank in the past and remains active with charitable and non-profit organizations in the city. He is also thrilled that the entire organization has shifted their focus to help low-income families on a more long-term scale: not just by continually supporting their needs with the food bank, but by teaching them cooking skills and providing an avenue by which they can afford to eat fresh produce on a daily basis. You know how the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

In fact, 17% of the population of the City of Mississauga (42,000 people in western Mississauga alone) is food insecure, many of which are working families just trying to make ends meet. I would know – we used to be one of them. When I told Executive Director Mr. Crawford that I felt guilty buying a fresh box when I could afford groceries at retail price, he said that I shouldn’t. He explained that not only does the participation of a “regular person” such as myself help create a consistent base for them to coninue the program and increase access of fresh produce to low-income families, it also encourages engagement in a wider discussion of food security in our community.

And here we are 2,000 words later!

Mr. Costello added, “We don’t make any money at all. We just want to create as much value as we possibly can. We want people to steer away from choosing highly processed food just because it’s cheaper or the only choice available sometimes. By providing fresh produce available at cost, we want people to choose fresh fruits and vegetables out of desire, not out of price. We just want to level out the playing field here.”

And that’s exactly what I would call “Good Food for All.” Eden’s good in my books. My husband was a skeptic no more.

If you live in Mississauga (or Oakville and are passing by anyway), it’s not too late to order this week’s fresh box! Check out my own review here and order $10 and $20 boxes on their website before every Thursday at 4 pm for pick-ups on Fridays.

Between this and Front Door Organics, I think the choice is clear. Who doesn’t want to get cheaper produce AND help their community? And who says you can’t buy your kale and acorn squash elsewhere too?