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‘Try to save’: Non-profits and food co-ops offer grocery deals, discounts

By Morgan Lowrie, Rosa Saba, Brieanna Charlebois, Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

Many Canadians these days are looking for ways to save money on their groceries. In some cities, non-profits and food co-ops are giving people alternative options as they look to change their shopping habits and cut down on their bills. Here’s a look at what some organizations are doing:

In Montreal, a weekly market charges what customers can afford

The weekly fruit and vegetable market set up on Mondays in Montreal’s Pointe-St-Charles neighbourhood looks like any other small grocery store. Customers chat with volunteers as they fill their baskets with cauliflower, potatoes and leafy greens.

It’s at the checkout where things are different. Here, pricing works on a three-tier sliding scale.

The pay-what-you-can market is an initiative of Share the Warmth, which also operates a food bank and provides other community services in the city’s southwest.

Kimber Fellows, the organization’s director of philanthropic development and communications, says the market was developed to “fill a gap” identified after surveys of food bank users showed many wanted more fresh produce in their diets but had only a few dollars a week to spend on such items.

She says the rising cost of living has forced many to reduce their spending on fresh, healthy food because it’s not a fixed cost like rent or electricity.

“It’s one of the only areas where they can try to save. So we see a lot of families that are forced to shop at the dollar store or buy things that are, maybe, rich in carbs but low in nutrients,” she says.

“That’s why it’s really important for organizations like us to be able to increase access to healthy food.”

It’s not just low-income clients who visit the market. 

Shoppers have three options: pay the lowest price, which is the cost the organization pays the food supplier; pay a slightly higher “share the warmth” price; or, for those who can afford to support the program, choose a “pay it forward” price.

In the summer, the market operates outdoors, with the look of a farmers market. In the winter, it takes place in an airy, light-filled space on the second floor of a church. Sometimes there are recipe demonstrations, and volunteers are on hand to help direct people tofood banks or some of the organization’s other services.

Steven Wells fills his basket with green peppers, onions, cucumbers and carrots. The longtime client says the atmosphere and quality of the food is just like Montreal’s better-known, fancier Atwater and Jean-Talon markets.

“The only thing is, it’s lower in price – prices we can afford.”

A Toronto co-op helps shoppers avoid grocery store giants

Karma Co-op, tucked away on Karma Lane in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, is a haven for shoppers looking to spend their grocery dollars in their community instead of in the handful of grocery stores that sell the majority of food in Canada. 

The co-op was started, in part, out of distrust of large grocery chains, says general manager Zachary Weingarten.

“Even back in 1972, folks were frustrated with the largest supermarkets and the consolidation they were seeing in the industry, putting the smaller stores out of business,” he says.

“Fifty-two years later, we’re still facing a lot of the same issues.”

Many co-ops born during that time are no longer operating, says co-op president Sharon Mandair, but Karma has continued to some degree because it bought the building it’s in, a former bakery.

The co-op focuses on local, organic and ethically sourced products, many of which are available in bulk so shoppers can reuse containers and buy only what they need.

And the more members, the better the prices Karma can offer.

Karma has about 550 active members and another 100 long-standing members who come in less often, says Mandair. There are also about 100 guest shoppers a month.

Members pay less than guest shoppers and get an extra discount if they sign up for shifts at the co-op. Members who work two hours in a month get a discount of five per cent the following month.

Some food, like organic produce, is competitively priced relative to supermarkets thanks to the co-op’s connections with farmers and producers, says Weingarten.

But he says shoppers tend to join the co-op because it aligns with their values. Karma has policies to ensure products meet certain conditions, including ethical, sustainable and nutritional considerations. And as a co-op, it doesn’t have to turn profits over to shareholders.

Because the co-op prioritizes local suppliers, “all the money goes back into the local economy.”

With supermarkets making record profits and lineups at food banks getting longer and longer, “there’s something not working right in our food system,” Weingarten says.

In Vancouver, a non-profit offers a lottery for rescued food

Food Stash Foundation opened its Rescued Food Market in Vancouver in 2021 with a pay-what-you-feel system. But executive director Carla Pellegrini says it was too popular and the store had to pivot to a customer lottery. 

“There are too many people to serve and not enough food or staff here to serve all of them as much as we would like,” Pellegrini says from the foundation’s warehouse that hosts the weekly market.

Every three months, organizers randomly choose 160 people from submitted applications. Those drawn pay a membership fee of $2 per week and receive an appointment time to collect their food every Thursday.

The organization also provides a home delivery program for people with disabilities or chronic health issues.

The non-profit aims to eliminate any stigma associated with not being able to afford the rising costs of food and provides another option for those who don’t want to use services like food banks, Pellegrini says. 

“With the affordability crisis and (because) food prices are rampant, there’s lots of demand for our work and others in the space doing similar work,” she says.

“We’re all looking for creative ways to save a little bit of money on our groceries. There’s lots of different ways that we can do that to … waste less food and therefore waste less money.”

The market sources its food from grocery stores in the city that would otherwise throw it out. It rescues about 54,000 kilograms of food each month.

The food is still edible and safe to eat, Pellegrini says, but stores decide to clear it from their shelves for various reasons. 

“What’s wrong with this?” she says of a box of frozen tortellini, before spotting its February 2024 best-before date. 

“But it’s frozen and it’s pasta. So you could eat this for the next year, and it’d be fine.” 

Much of the food the foundation receives is fresh produce, and most would be tossed by stores because it’s “ugly” or requires removing sections or pieces that are prematurely spoiling.

“It just takes a little more care that grocery stores don’t do,” Pellegrini says. 

“The environmental impact case is a huge reason why we exist but, of course, providing dignified access to food is really important.”

A travelling St. John’s food market supplies variety, low prices

It’s a grey day in St. John’s, N.L., and the selection of produce on offer in a small room at the Academy Canada campus surpasses most grocery stores in the city.

It’s cheaper, too. And that’s the point.

Sarah Crocker, with the non-profit Food First Newfoundland and Labrador, stands behind tables offering bok choy, beets, jalapenos, Asian pears and long, sweet peppers.

At $2 for each bundle, or three for $5, Crocker says her Food on the Move pop-up market offers affordable ways for people to buy smaller, more manageable quantities of fresh produce.

She says it gives people living on their own a way to cut down on waste and those on low incomes a cheap alternative to big-name grocery stores. It also allows them a cheap way to try something new.

“I think it’s a bit of a misconception that people on low incomes should just eat basic foods,” Crocker says. “Even I’ve been really surprised by how much variety people are looking for and are interested in.”

Through Food First NL, Crocker buys produce from wholesalers such as Costco. She’s also a farmer and, when she can, she sources produce from fellow farmers.

A dozen local eggs at the market are priced at $5.

Crocker takes the market across the city each week, from the student centre at Memorial University to neighbourhoods with high concentrations of public housing.

After selling at Academy Canada, she’ll head to a community centre across the city to set up after a seniors’ bingo game.

“If you’re living on a low income, people with good intentions will be like, ‘Maybe you could shop in bulk. Maybe you could find a sale,'” she says.

“But when you think about how a household is going to do that, if they don’t own their own vehicle, and public transit is not great, and big discount grocery stores are way out of the city centre — it’s preposterous.”

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