How the reFRESH market saves food to feed families

The food recovery project diverted about 180,000 pounds of produce in 2020.

In the heart of downtown Duncan, tucked in between Cycle Therapy and The Garage on Duncan Street, is an unassuming marketplace. But there’s more there than first meets the eye.

The reFRESH Cowichan market is a grocery store on a mission: To divert food that would otherwise go to waste and to feed people who struggle to access healthy, nutritious foods. 

In 2020 the program picked up an estimated 180,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables from participating grocery stores, says Nathan Harben, who works with the Cowichan Green Community as the supervisor of the food recovery project.

The program began in 2018 and it’s “still going really strong,” Harben says. “We definitely branched out and are really increasing the amount of food.”

How it works

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A lot of the recovered food goes to community groups and programs that serve people who might need a little extra help covering grocery bills. The program distributes that food as far as Lake Cowichan and the Malahat.

The program is supporting many of the groups responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the temporary shelter sites and local First Nations with shelter-in-place orders.

ReFRESH Marketplace Nathan Harben
Nathan Harben runs the food recovery project at Cowichan Green Community. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

Some of the food goes into Cowichan Green Community’s commercial kitchen, to be processed into frozen meals and other products. Much of that food goes out to feed the community as well, through Meals on Wheels and other channels. 

And some goes onto the shelves at the reFRESH market, sold at a heavily discounted price to anyone who chooses to shop there. 

What’s no longer fit for human consumption gets donated to local farmers to feed animals. Essentially nothing gets composted, Harben says. 

A major facelift

When The Discourse visited the marketplace a year and a half ago, it was little more than a produce stand with a few extras: Some prepared food options, garden goods and local crafts.

After major renovations last October, the space has more of a feel of a community general store. Shelving through the space holds dry goods and pantry essentials. There are fridges and freezers with milk, eggs, meat, prepared meals and more. There are some household goods and personal care products, gardening books and a smattering of local crafts. 

This month, many shelf-tops boast local seeds from a variety of sources, part of Cowichan Green Community’s Seedy February event.

And of course, there’s the produce: close to the end of its shelf life but still in good shape, and very affordable. 

The store intends to be a place where people can get all their basic grocery shopping done, Harben says. People are less likely to make the trip if it adds another stop to the list.

Supporting local families

The store supports 100 individuals and families through a coupon program that allows a $25 weekly credit for anything in the store. There are dozens of people on a waitlist, too, says Harben. 

Longtime volunteer Sandy McPherson says she hears all the time about how much the program means to those who use it. And she’s constantly impressed by how far the shoppers are able to stretch the credit. 

The store includes many low-cost options, including not only the produce section but heavy discounts on some dry goods and certain products in the fridge and freezer. These affordable options are available not only to those on the coupon program, but all shoppers at the store. 

Julika Pape ReFRESH Cowichan marketplace
Store manager Julika Pape organizes the produce section. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

And the store wants to find more customers. “We could probably handle twice as many customers as we have been,” says store manager Julika Pape. “And I think it’s mostly just people not knowing, or not having been in there since we have really improved it a lot.”

Revenues from the store help keep the whole program afloat, and all are welcome to come and shop.

Supporting local farmers

The reFRESH market benefits from a strong relationship with local farmers, Harben says. 

There’s a daily schedule for farmers to come and pick up produce that’s past its prime to feed to animals, he says. The store also carries some local farm products. 

And more and more farmers are coming to the market to donate their excess, Harben says. “They’re really thrilled that they know it’s going somewhere where it’s counted. And we also are able to give tax receipts as well so that that kind of helps them out.”

Looking to the future

This year, “we’d like to take on one of the big boy stores, maybe Walmart or Superstore,” says Harben. Bringing in more food would prevent waste and get more healthy produce to families in need. 

“We could always do with more food, and we have no problem getting rid of it.” [end]

This Food For Thought article is made possible in part with funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC and Journalists for Human Rights/RBC. Their support does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content produced.

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