Thinking Beyond The Box - Organic entrepreneurs bring the farm to Fort McMurray
Fort McMurray residents are stocking their kitchens with nutritious food options without having to leave their doorsteps since the first organic grocery home service – The Organic Box - has made its way into the community from Alberta’s capital.
“Launching home delivery in Fort McMurray is an exciting prospect for us,” says Danny Turner, co-founder and owner of The Organic Box. “It will be the first time we’ve had delivery vans not based in Edmonton. We will be able to access more community members – shift workers, more families with children, and those for whom our current pickup schedule was not workable. The future is bright in the North and we are so looking forward to what the 2015 growing season will bring us.”
The latest local trend on purchasing organic food in bulk started back on Christmas Day in 2014, after Edmontonian entrepreneurs Danny and Miranda Turner brought their thriving business of selling food from family-owned and Alberta grown farms to the Wood Buffalo region.
Based on feedback from previously introducing the service to Fort McMurray locals, the Turners’ initial plan was to host a “soft launch” during the holidays to maintain the interest. The result was a huge response with over 500 families registering for memberships by their official delivery date on New Year’s Day.
In early March, The Organic Box distribution went from pick-up only at The Wood Buffalo Food Bank (and soon after, Sangster’s Organic Market in Timberlea) to a full home delivery service.
“Fort McMurray has been on our radar for some time,” Danny Turner explains. “We had received many requests from families in the region to offer service and we’ve been aware of the many challenges faced in getting local and organic food into the community.”
Well-known for their humanitarian efforts, the Turners first launched The Organic Box’s pick-up location at The Wood Buffalo Food Bank in hopes to increase donations and awareness for the social-profit’s needs.
“The food bank’s client base is growing, as a result of some of the recent changes in the employment market in Fort McMurray,” Turner shares.
“Our partnership allows for increased visibility for the food bank in the community, a connection to larger sources of fundraising and food donations in Edmonton. Plus, we donate food each week, along with our regular orders delivered to the food bank for collection, by our members.”
The Wood Buffalo Food Bank is one of the Turners’ many community engagement programs, as they are continuously spreading the seeds of philanthropy throughout Alberta. In February, they launched their “Juice with Love” program in conjunction with the Ronald McDonald House of Northern Alberta and Glow Juicery.
Due to the nature of the Ronald McDonald House and how it provides a respite and temporary home-away-from-home for families with sick children at the Stollery Children’s Hospital, Turner explains this new program will provide them with nutritional supplements.
“Families can often spend weeks or even months at the House, while their child is in treatment or recovering at the hospital. Our program is designed to introduce a supplemental nutritional program for the residents and patients, who can often fall into a pattern of stress eating and unhealthy living, as the impact of their sick family member takes its toll,” he says. “We have committed to donate $26,000 in organic fruits and vegetables for juicing in 2015.”
Turner says giving back is something that has been rooted into their business from the beginning, since The Organic Box’s mission and mandate is built on “families working together.”
“Ultimately, The Organic Box is a group of farming and food producing families working together in your community to provide an alternative source of food for that same community. We are very strongly connected to the areas we serve and work to keep as much of the food dollar as we can in Northern Alberta,” he shares.
“This is achieved through the selection of local businesses to provide our non-food services, as well as a program of giving that we call the ‘Growing Better Together Fund’. More than words, ‘Growing Better Together’ is our mantra and we mean it.”
Local residents express satisfaction with farm-grown goods, as it lessens their own carbon footprint.
Erin Schwab, an instructor in the Art & Design Program at Keyano College, learned about The Organic Box through Jered Serben of Serben Free-Range.
Jered and his wife, Julia, own and operate a fourth generation old-style, free-range farm, which is located 120 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. For years, they have been distributing their produced free-range, hormone-free, antibiotic-free chicken, turkey, lamb, eggs and pork to Wood Buffalo residents.
When Serben told Schwab that his products would be sold through the Turners’ business, she signed up with The Organic Box in the first two weeks.
“He (Jered Serben) gave them a rave review and coming from a local farmer, I took that as a good sign,” she says. “We started using the program in the second week it started and I receive The Box biweekly.”
Schwab’s Organic Box includes: sprouts, watermelon radish, golden beets, fingerling potatoes, fresh dill, red leaf lettuce, garlic, sugar snap peas, mixed carrots, kale, blueberries, butternut squash, bananas, Pink Lady apples, avocado, banana bread, breakfast cookies, eggs, milk and she recently tried their new Alberta-made brie.
A seven-year resident of Fort McMurray, Schwab is an avid green thumber and has always been in favour of organic eating, simply because she says she’s passionate of supporting local farmers and feels commercial fruit has no flavour.
“My concerns (on organic food) were rooted in the quality of the produce that we previously received at the grocery store and I wanted to support local farmers as much as possible,” she shares.
“I was sick of eating fruit that didn’t taste like anything and having no clue where it came from. I grow a lot of vegetables in my garden in the summer and it’s been hard to go from garden tomatoes to what we can get at the local store in the winter because it doesn’t have much taste to it.”
Schwab says another bonus to getting her groceries from The Box is that she’s not paying the commercial store prices and can stay away from the busy Fort McMurray lineups - something she explains many local residents can agree with.
“We now get fresh organic produce in Fort McMurray with Edmonton prices,” she shares. “And the online shopping aspect is perfect for this town. I can grocery shop at my desk, over lunch, and pick it up that week to avoid all of those massive line-ups at the till, the over-crowded parking lots and picked over produce.”
Finding picked over produce isn’t a rare occasion when grocery shopping, local resident Roxanne Oliver shares how she’s tired of searching at multiple supermarkets across the city for a certain item, only to find an empty shelf or rotting leftovers. Though this may not be the frequent situation, she explains how this scenario left her seeking a better solution and found The Organic Box in a Facebook ad.
“I wanted a convenient way to get fresh produce into my kitchen,” said Oliver, a local Zumba instructor and founder of Fountain of Youth Fitness. “I was tired of the empty shelves at the grocery stores and having to go to multiple stores to find the things that I need.”
Oliver had her first experience with The Organic Box in early March, she describes it as an easy way of getting great produce. From purchasing online to the customer care services that she discovered on the company’s Facebook page, Oliver says the entire process was “a breeze”.
“The website is very user-friendly. Their Facebook page is great as well, and my questions were answered very quickly,” she says. “I like the convenience of placing the order online and the quality of the products in my box.”
Oliver’s first Organic Box included: pears, mangos, apples, blueberries, carrots, potatoes, broccoli, tomatoes, avocados, mushrooms, bananas, green onions, salad shoots, garlic and kale chips, which she shares, she had to try.
“We also got one recipe and a thermometer to help keep the fridge at the right temperature for our organic food,” she says. “I can’t wait to try other stuff. They carry dairy, eggs, bread, cereals, pasta, and even meats.”
As a fitness instructor in Fort McMurray, Oliver knows the importance of living a healthy lifestyle, she’s actively hosting classes for local youth and her family is highly-involved in this pursuit. She expresses how happy she was to get her two sons interested in healthy eating too, through The Organic Box, by letting them take part in the online ordering process.
“My kids even got excited to pick up our box and they helped pick out what we should order,” she says. “I couldn’t get them interested in the produce section of the grocery store for nothing, but they love The Organic Box. This will allow us to try new things that we might not pick up at a grocery store.”
Turner says he’s been enjoying seeing the reaction of satisfied consumers in photos and posts shared throughout social media and describes it as a positive reinforcement that makes his day.
“I can always tell we are having an impact when people post pictures of their box and its contents on the social media channels, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. They really do make my day, especially when happy children are included in the shots,” says Turner, the father of two young sons.
“Having a five-year-old reach into an Organic Box, pull out a tomato, and chomp away, while giggling and making a mess, is probably the most rewarding story I’ve seen so far. Throw away the candy. Tomatoes for everyone!”
As the farm moves forward, sourcing food to neighbouring cities and communities grow stronger.
Fort McMurray was not alone on The Organic Box’s latest delivery list and it made its debut in Peace River in early December. Turner says it was all a well-thought out plan and the reasoning behind their recent move to a new 17,500 square foot distribution centre back in the fall.
“It (the distribution centre) was specifically designed to enable service in Northern Alberta cities,” he says. “Peace River was our first opening in December 2014, followed by Fort McMurray in January. We will be offering service in Grande Prairie and Lloydminster by the summer.”
With The Organic Box being tagged as Edmonton’s largest and one of Western Canada’s most successful food hubs, the amount of space was a necessity. In the provincially-inspected facility, there is 3,000 sq. ft. of cooler space and 800 sq. ft. of freezer space, tons of dry storage and a processing space, which gives everyone in their food family a place to use their shared storage, distribution and marketing facilities.
Every day, The Turners, and their staff of over 50 people, are working towards connecting others with their food hub. The hub is their place to bring local growers and producers together to join their “Food Family.”
Turner explains how the more they partner with local producers, the more everyone can maintain their sustainability and have their products survive. This is why The Organic Box is dedicated to fair pricing for their products.
“We are dedicated to fair pricing for our products,” he says. “This means a fair price to the producer, a fair price to us as the food hub, and a fair price to the consumer as the customer.”
In the conventional food system, reductions in food prices are typically borne by the primary producer of the product, who, Turner says, “ends up receiving less than a fair price for their food.”
“I have seen many examples of farmers who aren’t paid enough for their product to survive, and end up having to work off the farm to support his or her household,” Turner shares. “When you buy a product from The Organic Box, you can have confidence that every participant in the value chain is receiving a living wage for the products.”
Now that The Organic Box has reached its five-year milestone, the Turners are able to reflect on the success of their “Food Family”. Danny describes the business growth as “gratifying.”
“When we first started The Organic Box, Miranda and I were looking for a way to reconnect with our food and provide a stable, year-round and direct market for farm products in Northern Alberta,” he says. “When we added our own farm to the mix in 2012, we already had the market made. We never expected it to be as successful and grow as large as it has. It is so gratifying to see how much our community supports what we are doing. It is our food family.”
Visit The Organic Box online at www.theorganicbox.ca to learn more or sign up to have fresh, certified organic food delivered to your door.