Fresh Routes Bus

Alumna and Others Bring Healthy Options to Food Deserts

Fresh Routes is no ordinary food truck

by Deb Cummings

The term “food desert” is an evocative analogy, conjuring an image of a barren landscape devoid of fresh produce. It’s also a term that alumna Lourdes Juan, MEDes’09, often uses to describe one of the motivators behind her latest initiative, Fresh Routes.

Launched in early October, this retrofitted City of Calgary bus — with the slogan on its side panel that reads, “Good food stops for you” — carries no passengers. Instead, this mobile grocery store is loaded with bins and shelves of produce that are now being sold from 40 to 60 per cent below market value in 20 communities per month. Operating five days a week, Juan explains that the bus was a logical extension of a series of pop-up markets, dubbed Fresh Routes, that has been running as a pilot project in conjunction with the City of Calgary over the last year.

Fresh Routes bus
Fresh Routes bus
Fresh Routes bus

Mariah Wilson

“By last November, we had completed thousands and thousands of transactions,” says the UCalgary Environmental Design grad, (renamed the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape) who’s one of Fresh Routes’ co-founders. “So many communities began asking us, ‘how do we get the market to stop here?’ and we began seeing the reasons for food security were so different across Calgary. Some were in a food desert, some were in areas with a lot of seniors who had mobility issues, others were in young immigrant populations that just didn’t have time to take a bus to get to an affordable grocery store.”

That’s when Juan and her team began working with social workers as well as Calgary Transit, Loblaws, Prairie Mills, local farmers’ outlets and others — all keen to redistribute healthier food at affordable prices to underserved areas of the city. In fact, the tenets of the food strategy that Juan used to create her very first social-good project, Leftovers Foundation, are identical. In 2012, Leftovers began as a food redistribution channel that saw volunteers collect donations from businesses and then deliver the food to dozens of agencies and community groups around Calgary. The principles behind Fresh Routes are very similar — if people have a hard time getting to the food, why not bring the food to the people?

“Even though the numbers were amazing (today, Leftovers works with more than 50 agencies and 80 vendors to redirect about six tons of food per week) we felt the food access piece was still lacking,” says Juan, explaining Leftovers was really a food redistribution hub, and they, as an organization wanted to do more . . . for underserved households. 

That’s precisely why, if you check its schedule, you’ll see that Fresh Routes stops at neighbourhoods such as Pineridge, Bowness and East Village, as well as post-secondary institutes (UCalgary on Fridays) , the Alex, Mustard Seed, Stoney Nakoda. Tsuut’ina, and others.

Don’t assume that Fresh Routes is all about alleviating poverty, says Juan, “it’s about choices, it’s about selling people healthy food, it’s about food dignity.  In fact, the whole dignity piece was really big for us. That’s why we didn’t want to bring an old dingy bus into a community.”

Fresh Routes bus

Mariah Wilson

Bringing on the Toronto-based architecture firm, Mason Studios (who designed the retrofit) and Brandvan (the powerhouse behind the illustrations and brand) was a game changer, explains Juan, “we knew the bus was operationally sound but once Mason and Brandvan stepped in, it became beautiful and something beautiful is exactly what we wanted to bring into those communities.”

Hop on this bright and airy bus today and you’ll find about 30 fresh items from bananas and lentils to okra and kale. So heavily discounted are the prices that the average sale for a week’s worth of fresh produce for two people is about $10. And if you volunteer on the bus, you get a $15 credit.

If Leftovers is any example of Juan’s vision, expansion is inevitable. In fact, two weeks after Calgary’s launch, Fresh Routes started a pop-up food market in Edmonton (hosted in a one-ton truck) with a partnership in Winnipeg and then Toronto next up on Juan’s ever-growing to-do list.

Those who knew Juan, say 10 years ago, would have found a recent grad, with very different aspirations.

“Looking back,” she recalls, “I don’t think I had much of a social outlook. I certainly didn’t know the terms ‘food security or food rescue or food access.’ My priorities have completely turned around.”

From an urban-planning perspective, Juan says she can merge her “urban planning hat” with her business acumen to work in this ever-evolving complex network of food systems — systems that saw $49-billion in food wasted in Canada last year, or 35.5 million tons.

“None of the solutions to this urban problem of food waste is simple,” stresses Juan, “but healthy food, instead of just fast-food options, has to be available where people live, in order for them to buy it. It has to happen at the household level, at the retail level, with farmers . . . and we all have to be more aware of these issues.”   

Fresh Routes pop-up market
Fresh Routes pop-up market

Fresh Routes hosts a pop-up market in UCalgary’s Kinesiology building every Friday.

Riley Brandt

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