Innovation Foods to the rescue

🕔Dec 15, 2009

The storefront sign at Innovation Foods in Smithers is eye-catching, made up of hundreds of tin cans that students gathered from the dump, cleaned, crushed and fixed to spell the name in large bold letters. Rescuing and reusing is part of what this non-profit, low-cost grocery store is all about. Opened in March 2009 through a Community Living BC grant, Innovation Foods is northern BC’s first food rescue and redistribution centre.

Rescuing and redistributing food? Think of it as a modern-day form of Robin Hood, taking where there is a surplus and giving where there is a need. We have often heard there is more than enough food in this world to feed everyone, and Innovation Foods is doing its part to ensure that affordable, quality food is available in northern BC year-round from a storefront location.

The idea was inspired by Quest Outreach, a food-exchange business operating in the lower mainland for the past 20 years. Quest rescues canned goods and perishables about to enter the waste stream and redirects it to families through social service groups. Their efforts divert 2.6 million pounds of surplus food from landfills annually—over 8 million dollars worth of food. By partnering with Quest Outreach, Innovation Foods has a successful model to follow.

Walking up and down the store aisles one sees everything from jugs of milk to low-fat, organic, fancy-brand crackers. There are price tags on the products, but there are also signs taped to shelves indicating that if you do not have enough money, the price can be reduced so you can still get the food you need. The posted prices are much lower than you would expect to pay elsewhere.

There is an aisle for toiletries and diapers, and even a section for pet foods. Pasta, cereals and breads of every description are on display. The windowsill is lined with clean stuffed animals and the storage shelves in the back are full of warehouse-style boxes waiting to be broken down and safely vacuum-sealed into smaller packages. When you open one of the large chest freezers and see bratwursts from the Sausage Factory on Smithers’ Main Street, you know this is not the dented cans and stale bread so often associated with food hamper centres.

Health regulations

Northern Health Authority’s Environmental Health Officer Shawna Scafe regularly visits the store, inspecting the facility to ensure everything is handled properly and safely. The staff and volunteers are very proactive, exploring every possible avenue to get more foods in the store while consulting with Scafe to see how it can be done safely.

“At first glance it would seem that the big hurdle for Innovation Foods is using ‘expired’ food,” says Scafe. “But a ‘best before’ date does not mean the food is unsafe to eat after that date—more that the quality may deteriorate. If the food is handled safely it can still be sold and used past this date, with the exception of nutritional supplements, baby food, infant formulas and other human-milk-substitutes, which do have an expiry date after which they should no longer be sold or consumed.”

Membership Fuelled

Lorna Butz, program coordinator and one of two full-time employees at Innovation Foods, speaks to the wide variety of products, noting the intention to make this a “one-stop quality shop” for low-income individuals and families. When asked who can shop here, she explains: “Memberships are available at the store or by referral from social service agencies. Memberships are free and confidential.” The application form asks for basic statistical information such as age and gender, and to qualify your annual income has to fit within the low-income parameters the store uses as a guideline. “But the bottom line is that if you require food assistance for you and your family, we are here to help out”.

Membership currently stands at well over 500 families, representing 1,700 individuals between Hazelton and Houston. People on social assistance can volunteer at the store and gain $100 on their monthly cheque, or work for food vouchers to be used there.

Volunteer Driven

And many do volunteer: 25 to 30 adults with developmental delays help restock shelves, welcome customers and gain valuable work experience there. Dana Gorbahn, executive director of High Road Services, the host agency for the Innovation Foods project, says that these adults are greatly benefiting from their experience at the storefront. “They are able to have meaningful integration into the community while practising job skills and volunteerism.”

The clean and well-organized store is busy. Volunteers—and there seems to be a lot of them—unload trucks, sort products, clean perishables, stock shelves, interact with customers and clean the building.

Community Raised

Stores and wholesale distributors in the Smithers area support Innovation Foods by donating their nearly expired goods, products they no longer carry, or goods damaged in transport. These boxes of dry goods, cases of canned goods and perishables would otherwise be going to the Smithers Transfer Station and becoming part of the landfill.

Smithers-owned and family-operated Bandstra Transport provides free shipping of dry goods from the lower mainland. We’re not talking about a few boxes of cereal here, but approximately 900 pounds each week, delivered to the store. Most of that food comes from the Quest warehouse. “Bandstra’s support is one of the reasons our food pricing can remain low for our clients’ benefit,” says Lorna Butz.

“The support we’ve received from the community is significant. We are truly community-raised,” she says, referring to supporter Woodmere Nursery being a huge supplier of produce and another training location for adults with developmental delays. The BV Credit Union, the Royal Bank, the BV Foundation, service clubs, local businesses and individuals have been supporting the project.
Joe Hug, of Hug Farms, an organic farm near Smithers, heard about Innovation Foods and knew his farm could make a difference.

“It’s a good cause, and we can supply good healthy food,” he says. “It feels good to help.” The 250 kilograms of carrots that Hug Farms is donating is providing families with local, organic and definitely healthy fresh produce. Innovation Foods has welcomed donations of vegetables from local growers, and credits the donor with labels such as ‘Josette’s Kale.’

Being mindful of its own food waste, Innovation Foods placed an ad in local papers inviting pig and chicken farmers to come to the back door and collect scrap bread and vegetables. The local wildlife shelter benefits as well. The store also makes an effort to recycle food packaging and minimize waste.

Thanks to volunteers and community support, Innovation Foods is playing an active role in helping those who need it most by providing low-cost, high-quality food from a clean, safe and friendly storefront. As Lorna Butz says “It’s all about encouraging businesses and communities to help each other, and to work together to build a brighter and healthier tomorrow.”