Fresh Routes, a social enterprise that provides mobile grocery delivery to communities lacking access to fresh food, has been operating in Calgary and Edmonton since October 2019. The Edmonton CDC is a proud partner and supporter of this organization, and in July 2020, we spoke with Morgan Allen, Team Lead for Fresh Routes Edmonton, about their extremely unpredictable first year.
“March 12th was a whirlwind of a day,” recalls Morgan. “Our team launched a new mobile grocery stop at Parkdale school, and we had a huge turnout. We’d been planning this stop for months, so we were all very excited. That evening, we had a volunteer appreciation party. It was a pretty full day!”
The next morning, Morgan was in a teleconference with the Fresh Routes team to talk about the other thing that happened the day before.
While Morgan and her team were beginning to see their hard work and months of planning begin to yield fruit, the Government of Alberta announced drastic public health measures in response to the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic.
“Everything got turned on its head,” she says. “We realized things were not going to be normal for quite a while.”
It bears mentioning at this point that, considering their origin story, the Fresh Routes team may have a unique concept of “normal.”
The seeds for Fresh Routes were planted in 2018 by the Calgary-based Leftovers Foundation (one of Western Canada’s largest food rescue charities), and, in Edmonton, a community-university research partnership.
“In 2018, the University of Alberta started a partnership with the Multicultural Health Brokers’ Cooperative (MHBC)that supported, among other things, the Grocery Run Program,” recounts Morgan. “This food rescue program was born out of U of A research about newcomer Canadian women’s nutrition during pregnancy.”
What this research unexpectedly discovered, says Morgan, was that the primary concern for this population was not the nutritional value of food, but rather the ability to access food.
The Grocery Run Program (GRP), which distributes food packages to families lacking adequate access was a grassroots solution, and a very effective one, at that… at least for a while.
“In August of 2018, the demand for food at the GRP was going up, and we were struggling to access additional food using our existing food-rescue model,” says Morgan.
Maria Mayan, the project’s lead researcher and GRP’s main contact with the U of A, sought out the advice of Lourdes Juan, founder and CEO of the Leftovers Foundation (a Calgary charity that rescues and distributes food throughout the city).
“At that time,” says Morgan, “the Leftovers model was pretty robust compared to what we were doing in Edmonton. We had four vendors, and Leftovers had about 60 or 70. We made that connection to learn how to build a similar system in Edmonton.”
With on-site human resources provided by the Grocery Run team, Edmonton’s new Leftovers operation began to build relationships with new vendors across the city, and their capacity to glean food increased significantly (though, as Morgan notes, “there’s still not enough food to support all the families who need it”).
The Fresh Routes concept, says Morgan, was first explored in the spring of 2019, when Mark Holmgren, Executive Director of the Edmonton Community Development Company, began to bring together representatives of organizations like GRP and Leftovers that were addressing food insecurity.
The idea to create a mobile grocery program using a social enterprise model was unique to what any of those organizations were doing, but many believed the idea had merit, and the Leftovers Foundation developed a pilot project to test its feasibility.
After months of planning and hard work, Fresh Routes made its Edmonton debut in October 2019; Morgan describes their first few months of operations as “pretty hectic… but exciting.”
She explains: “Our very first stop was at Clareview Recreation Centre, and there was a huge turnout and a lot of enthusiasm. It was really rewarding to see so many people turn up.”
Between October of that year and March of the next, Morgan and her Fresh Routes team launched several other stops throughout Edmonton.
“Going into 2020, it felt like we were completing the process of learning lessons, finding our place, developing some processes, and figuring out what works in this city,” says Morgan. “It kind of felt like we were hitting our stride!”
“The pandemic obviously threw a big wrench in that,” she continues. “During our meeting on March 12, we decided to put all our stops on hold.”
Morgan describes the next several weeks as “a total whirlwind.” But, in spite of global uncertainty and apprehension, the Fresh Routes team stayed focused on their mission.
“Early the following week, as a team, we set out to find a way to use our existing tools and relationships to support the community in spite of everything that was going on,” she says. “Though we were all individually coming to terms with the situation, we were collectively motivated to respond. For me, that was the point I felt our team really came together.”
In short order, after putting the mobile grocery on-hold, Fresh Routes started a door-to-door, direct-order grocery delivery program. At the same time, the organization launched their “Fresh Baskets” program to bring food into Indigenous communities, as well as a drive-through grocery pick-up service.
“We built out each of these programs at the same time we were operating them, meaning there was a lot of ‘learn-as-we-go’,” says Morgan. “This was a huge pivot—the week prior, we had never even talked about these programs, let alone operated them.”
Still, she says, Fresh Routes continued to hear about people who had difficulty accessing food due to the pandemic. In response, the team built out their grocery delivery service into the more-robust COVID Emergency Delivery (CED) service, which has grown into a major area of focus for Fresh Routes over the spring and summer of 2020.
“The CED program has two sides,” explains Morgan. “On one side, volunteers go into a warehouse and pack packages. On the other, a separate pool of volunteers delivers those packages to people in the community. We had to design a program with considerations for what to pack in the hampers, how to manage food requests, what criteria to use for food requests, and how we could ensure the health and safety of our volunteers.”
Besides this, the team had to create new delivery maps; recruit and train new volunteers; devise communications systems for drivers; and incorporate grocery order forms on their website.
Realizing they would need additional funding for the COVID program, they created a GoFundMe page, which, as of the time of writing, has raised over $17,000, all of which goes to creating food baskets for people whose food access has been restricted due to COVID.
“Thanks to these and other donations from organizations like the Edmonton CDC, we have actually managed to raise over $25,000 for our food basket delivery,” says Morgan.
Within the next several months, despite being busy with COVID contingencies, Fresh Routes even managed to re-open and expand its mobile grocery stops (with very high standards for public health measures).
“Over the summer, we’ve had eight stops operating,” says Morgan. “Three remain on hold, and one is set to relaunch. We also have two new stops set to launch late in August or September. At each stop, we’ve implemented all AHS recommendations concerning face masks, washing and sanitizing hands and surfaces, and social distancing.”
In the near future, says Morgan, Fresh Routes Edmonton looks forward to expanding their reach; they’ve recently taken up new warehousing space in Little Italy’s La Piazza strip mall (thanks to the support of the McCauley Development Co-op), and they’ve purchased a new refrigerated food truck with the support of the Edmonton CDC.
“[The new truck] is crucial for us in order to expand,” says Morgan. “With our current truck, we’re limited to a maximum of three stops per day, since it takes a certain amount of time to unload the food and to set everything up. A second truck means we’re able to double the amount of stops we have in the city. It also means that we’re able to offer more convenient time slots to various communities.”
How does it happen that, in a year of unprecedented social and economic uncertainty, a months-old, non-profit mobile grocery manages to pivot and grow while staying true to its ideological roots?
Morgan has a few theories: “I think what enabled us to work so well together is the fact that we’re all passionate about ensuring people have dignified access to food. Our staff and volunteers have different strengths and areas of expertise, so everyone finds their niche.”
“Most of all,” she says, “our team has a mentality of ‘we can do it; let’s figure out how.’ I think that’s been around through all of Fresh Routes and Leftovers’ histories. Both started as pie-in-the-sky ideas, and we figured things out as we went, because there was a community desire that was not being fulfilled.”
To help support the future success of Fresh Routes, Morgan invites you to:
As of September 22, 2020, Fresh Routes’ COVID Emergency Delivery program has raised a total of $24,440 and delivered 1794 food boxes in Edmonton (with a further $28,445 and 2048 boxes in Calgary)!
The Edmonton Community Development Company is extremely proud to partner with Fresh Routes, and we look forward to watching their organization bloom in Edmonton, Calgary, and beyond.