If you walk into one particular grocery store in Toronto’s trendy west-end Junction neighbourhood, you might marvel that all the produce here is organic. Or you might be surprised to see that there’s no cash register. Or prices, on anything. That’s because it runs on a unique “pay-what-you-can” model. It bills itself as the first PWYC grocery store in the world, which is debatable, but it’s certainly the first of its kind in Canada.
The concept is simple: anyone is welcome to help themselves to an array of organic produce, cooking staples and other food—but no more than a day’s worth at a time. The cost is whatever you decide you can and should pay. It also accepts a cryptocurrency called BTZ, created by a Canadian bartering platform called Bunz. Some people choose to pay nothing, which is perfectly fine.
The store opened its doors this summer, to give shoppers access to what chef Jagger Gordon calls “the Cinderella of food”—items that have great potential, if you know what to look for. This store is part of the social entrepreneur’s bigger mission to fight hunger and food waste. Gordon is the founder of Feed It Forward, powered by an army of nearly 800 volunteers and tens of thousands of pounds of food donated daily by local partners including Whole Foods. It’s perfectly good food that would otherwise end up in a landfill—wasted and creating climate-damaging greenhouse gases like methane.
This storefront feels like a drop in the ocean when you consider that, in Canada, $31 billion dollars worth of food goes to waste every year. Not only is this a waste of resources, but according to Gordon, it’s wrong-headed. A lot of the produce that is wasted, is better than food that looks more Instagram-worthy. “Black avocados taste better because they’re ripe,” he says. “If a pepper is wrinkled, it probably tastes better because it has better flavour profiles.” Consequently, a lot of his time is spent educating people who walk through his door about how to prepare and think about food.
He says his young clientele—most of his customers are between the ages of six and 25—is really important because he’s not just giving them food, which he considers a band-aid solution. He offers empowerment, based on his chef skills, teaching them how to make meals that are nutritious and aren’t wasteful. “We give them a healthier diet instead of having to live off Big Macs and Kraft Dinner.” He says sharing knowledge is an important part of his long-term fight against hunger and food insecurity.
The bulk of the donated food goes to prepared meals, such as the $5 pre-packaged meal for students that they can get delivered to their door. Bruised or otherwise “imperfect” food can go into soups, casseroles or other dishes. The kitchen aims to make use of 95 percent or more of what is donated—meat products and other leftovers are made into pet food for cats and dogs.
For a movement that runs on “free food, free labour and free love,” Gordon’s biggest challenges are logistics and storage. Coordinating all the moving parts, including his catering business which also donates usable food back into the business, is a big task. And the movement is growing, which creates its own set of problems. “I have so many people to feed and I have so much food but I’m at capacity. I need more vehicles on the road, and I need more storage space because I can fill more of it.”
Gordon says he chose the current store location because the area is home to young families and senior citizens alike. There are plans to build a men’s shelter nearby. Maybe most importantly though, he says the cost of living in Toronto is rising and leaving people behind.
Twenty-two year-old Mohammed Mohyedin know this reality too well. He and his family have struggled for years to keep up with increasing costs. He also knows firsthand that hunger is an obstacle to learning—Mohyedin dropped out of school when he was 18. He volunteers his time and energy to the Feed It Forward cause, acting like a bridge to help connect with students in need. “A major part of it was coming from a poor family and not being able to eat at times,” he says, adding that his decision to drop out came from a combination of depression that hit him and financial struggles. “I used to think it was cool going to school without food, you know, I’m being strong and pushing through. But I realize it was preventing a lot of my potential. I wasn’t even able to concentrate.”
He doesn’t get paid for what has become a full-time gig at Feed it Forward, but Mohyedin says he’s learning on the job every day. In addition to helping with partnerships, and being at the grocery store once or twice a week, he oversees a campaign to tackle food insecurity at local college campuses. It’s opened his eyes to the importance of helping people at the grassroots level. It even has him thinking about the importance of a formal education. “I’m planning to go back to school next year because I see the value of being part of society and taking care of people. I’m interested in physics and philosophy. There’s a new world that requires new ways of thinking. I’m going to be part of it.”