Toronto Pay-What-You-Can Store Aims to Tackle Landfills and Hunger

In a bright, airy Toronto market, the shelves are laden with everything from organic produce to pre-made meals and pet food. What shoppers won’t find, however, is price tags. In what is believed to be a North American first, everything in this grocery store is pay-what-you-can.

Photo: FIF

The new store aims to tackle food insecurity and wastage by pitting the two issues against each other, said Jagger Gordon, the Toronto chef who launched the venture earlier this month.

Every provision is donated by a network of partners across the region, and many of them – from blemished or misshapen produce to staples that are nearing their expiry date – would have otherwise ended up in landfills.

“So it’s a simple procedure of taking those trucks that are destined for landfills, hijacking them and giving them to people in need,” Gordon said.

The store, which also includes a pay-what-you-can bakery and cafe, is the latest initiative to emerge from his non-profit firm, Feed It Forward. The roots of the organisation trace back to 2014, borne out of Gordon’s frustration at the C$31bn (£17.6bn) worth of food that ends up in Canadian landfills and compost sites each year while one in eight Toronto households struggles to put food on the table.

His initial attempts to address the issue were modest, from setting up a freezer where the public could access leftovers from his catering jobs to a pay-what-you-can soup bar that ran for eight months last year.

The Toronto store is one of his most ambitious ventures to date. The 102 sq-metre (1,100 sq ft) space is open seven days a week, and offers a wide variety of provisions, from flour and sugar to fruit and vegetablesand pulses.

Prices are entirely up to the customer. “If you can afford to pay more, go right ahead,” said Gordon. “If you can’t pay for what you have, then don’t.

“What I have noticed is people look into the baskets, try to calculate what it is and then say, ‘is this acceptable?’ And I just say, ‘are you kidding me? Whatever you can give is fine, but if you are unable to make a donation, we won’t let anyone go hungry.’ I wouldn’t even ask for a penny from anyone if I could, but it’s a social enterprise.”

Any profits are poured back into the store, covering costs such as rent and the transport of provisions. More than 600 volunteers help to staff the store and Gordon supplements its income with fundraising events, donations and revenue from his catering business.

Constant contact with several supermarkets, food terminals and bakeries across the region ensures a steady supply of fresh food, diverting as much as 450kg (992lbs) a day from landfills.

As the store nears its closing time, Gordon surveys its largely empty shelves. “I’m a little disappointed that I have food left,” he said. “I’m being dead serious. I’m irritated. We’ve got about 100 to 200lbs of bread left.

“We’re going to the streets and hand it all out. We won’t stop until our food is gone.”

Other leftovers are taken to a nearby homeless shelter and community centre, he said.

Many have welcomed the initiative, but others question the sustainability of its business model. Gordon is quick to brush aside such concerns, pointing to pay-what-you-can initiatives that have been successful in Europe and noting that his soup bar managed to pay for itself.

His hope is that the store will carve out a path that others can easily follow around the world. “It’s about teaching and educating people how this could be done because we have so much food that’s going to waste,” he said. “I just really want to show people that this model can work.”

Source: Guardian