A new grocery store is opening in the Junction and the shelves are being stocked with pantry staples: bread, canned goods, beans and cereal. Baskets are being filled with softball-sized grapefruits and heads of purple cauliflower. But there’s one thing missing: price tags. That’s because everything in this 1,100-square-foot market is pay-what-you-can.
Customers take what they need, and give what money they can, or nothing if they cannot pay. Store owner Jagger Gordon says customers are limited to a days’ worth of food for a family so that the shop can feed as many people as possible, or people can sign up to have a box of packaged foods and produce with recipes sent to them on a biweekly basis.
The food comes from food terminals, farms, restaurants, cafés, supermarkets and bakeries. None of it is expired or rotten, but companies are getting rid of it for reasons such as the produce being naturally bruised or misshapen, or there’s too much to store in warehouses. Suppliers include the Whole Foods Market in Yorkville, Fred’s Bread bakery, Moxie’s Grill and Bar on University Ave., organic growers Greenwood Farms in Whitby and the seafood company High Liner Canada.
“There are big companies that have a lot of (food) stuff stored away in big warehouses and not all of it is sold,” said Gordon, a Toronto chef and founder of the Feed It Forward initiative. “There’s nothing wrong with the products we get; some stores just mandate that the food can’t sit longer for four or six months on the shelf. For example, we have pet food here that’s still six months away from the optimal freshness date.”
It’s an ambitious social enterprise headed up by Gordon, who for the past four years has been working on addressing food insecurity and waste in the city.
The Feed It Forward grocery store, at 3324 Dundas St. W., just east of Runnymede Rd., will have its grand opening Saturday at noon after which it will be open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Similar ventures exist internationally. In Canada, there’s Second Harvest, which saves food from supermarkets, farms and factories and redistributes it to social agencies such as shelters as well as school breakfast programs across the GTA. Gordon is experimenting with reducing food waste with the pay-what-you-can model.
“The concept behind the store is showcasing how Canadians can utilize the food that’s destined for landfills: perfectly edible food that shouldn’t be thrown out and can be filling the empty bellies of our citizens,” Gordon said as he unpacked striped red and yellow peppers donated by a local supermarket.
A report released in April by the Commission for Environmental Co-operation, an organization created by Canada, Mexico and the United States to monitor the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement on member countries, found that for every Canadian, almost 400 kilograms of food is thrown away annually.
Statistics from the University of Toronto’s department of nutritional sciences also show that one in eight Toronto households don’t always have access to nutritious and affordable food. It’s a problem compounded by other issues such as the lack of affordable housing and low incomes. Although a pay-what-you-can grocery store won’t solve everything, Gordon wanted to use his culinary experience and connections to help Torontonians gain access to healthy food.
“I used to send my daughter to her friends for a sleepover and in the morning, they’d come back into my kitchen saying they’re here for breakfast because the other house had nothing in the fridge,” he said. He chose the Junction neighbourhood because many residents are on fixed incomes and it’s close to schools and a proposed men’s shelter. “After that, I got more involved with after-school programs and helped provide meals for kids in the neighbourhood. That’s how things progressed.”
In 2014, he started a pilot project installing a commercial freezer on private property within the Junction stocked with leftover food from his catering jobs. He expanded with more freezers in other neighbourhoods including Jane and Finch, but had to end it after realizing it wasn’t feasible to make the daily deliveries himself and fix the fridges after they were vandalized.
Last summer, Gordon opened Soup Bar inside a shipping container outside Scadding Court Community Centre at Dundas St. W. and Bathurst St., with a similar concept of pay-what-you-can meals created with donated ingredients. That operation lasted for eight months until leasing issues and the difficulties of operating without heat during the winter pushed him to close.
He persevered and, in addition to the store, he plans on launching an app and meal delivery service called Feed the Future that for $5 will provide students with nutritious and frozen meals made from donated ingredients and packed in biodegradable packaging.
The Feed It Forward shop is largely funded by his catering business, Jagger Gordon Catering, fundraising efforts such as the Toronto Doughnut Festival held recently at Dufferin Mall and a landlord who is supportive of the philanthropic concept. Gordon has applied for charitable status so that people who pay for their food at the shop can get a tax receipt, as the purchase would be considered a donation.
The shop will be run by volunteers who signed up on the Feed It Foward site. One volunteer, Toni Zambri, a professional cook in the city, said: “We don’t have a lot of money ourselves, but we live in a city where there shouldn’t be people begging on the street. A place like this makes you feel like you’re going into a regular store.”
The movement first made gains in Europe in the past few years. In 2016, U.K.-based food advocacy group the Real Junk Food Project opened a “pay what you feel” market in Sheffield where patrons get fresh vegetables, bread, meat and dairy products that would otherwise end up in a landfill. The Good Food, a pay-what-you-can supermarket in Cologne, Germany, opened a year later. And in Copenhagen, Denmark, Wefood teamed up with a local supermarket chain and other suppliers to sell surplus groceries at a discount in 2016. It quickly opened a second location.
That same year, France made it mandatory for supermarkets to donate unwanted food to charities and food banks. Gordon said he hopes Canada will adopt similar measures as more people become aware of how much edible food gets thrown out.
He is optimistic that more corporate sponsors will sign on to donate food or open more locations, but for now he’s just eager to open the doors. “This is about showcasing how it can be done. People will invest in this idea whether it’s with me or someone else,” he said.
Karon Liu is the Star's food writer and is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @karonliu