The Strathcona Good Food Box Program

Strathcona Good Food Box logo


In August of 2020, United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island approached Greenways Land Trust to assess our potential interest in conducting a regional food security program during the pandemic. Greenways is an environmental stewardship and conservation organization in Campbell River, British Columbia. Why would Streamkeepers and habitat improvers in a community of 30,000 people or so take on a food security initiative for a region with double that population spread over thousands of square kilometers in physical area? How would that even be possible?

We’ve known for a long time that access to fresh food in our rural and remote communities is a struggle, due to lack of grocery stores in those communities. There used to be grocery stores in some of these communities, but the ones that had them have seen them closed down. And some have never had grocery stores. So how do these people get fresh food?”

The answer, of course, has been that people have to travel to the nearest larger community that has a grocery store – sometimes for hours in each direction – to get their fresh produce. While some have the resources and time to do so, many do not. And that is unacceptable to us.

Greenways has been interested in food security for a long time. However, it’s always been through an environmental lens. For example, we initiated a fruit gleaning program, where volunteers would pick fruit from trees that would otherwise go unpicked. That fruit would then not act as a bear attractant, reducing the risk of human/bear interaction, but it would also then be distributed to those who have less access to fresh produce. We’ve also created a few community gardens.

When the United Way approached us and said they wanted to fund a program that would increase food security for those in rural and remote areas of the Island, we knew we needed to broaden our scope and impact. We were already well-positioned to initiate something, having already created many connections in these communities, and we’ve always wanted to do it, there just hadn’t been the opportunity. So we looked around at some other food security projects and settled on a Good Food Box program, where we would collect fresh produce in bulk, pack it into individual boxes, and people could order them from us and have them delivered to their home,or at least their community.

We submitted a grant application and received $50,696 from United Way Central and Northern Vancouver Island (UWCNVI) and the Government of Canada’s Emergency Community Support Fund. The goal of this funding was to provide the means in which to both design and implement a program model that could run semi-autonomously by the end of the grant. And then the real work began. We had a concept, and now we needed to see if it would fly.

I’m from Gold River and receive the good food boxes that you’ve been providing bi-weekly. These good food boxes have been of amazing quality and quantity! I can’t express enough how much stress and time they have saved my family. Living remotely during a pandemic is a challenge and not having to go into another community to get great fresh, local fruits and veggies has helped in every way. I am disabled and cannot drive over an hour to the next community that has a grocery store, these is not one here.

a head of lettuce and celery
Extra vegetables delivered to the community food cupboard in Tahsis, BC


We did an initial survey of the communities we were going to be serving before we started in order to find out if there was even interest in such a program, and if there was, were there certain kinds of produce people liked – or hated – and tried to figure out what we could to lean towards the former. The initial surveys in each of the communities asked questions such as: 

  • “Please tell us about the last experience you have getting groceries”, 
  • “If you had an easier method to obtain healthy, fresh produce, what would it mean to you and how would it affect you?”, and 
  • What would you like to see more accessible to you and/or your fellow community members, in terms of healthy food?”

Collectively we received the results of 84 of these surveys and used these to guide the pilot launch of the program.

We did more surveys throughout the program to gauge how we were doing and one at the once the program ended. The surveys give us valuable information about what worked in terms of people’s level of satisfaction with the program. Like the fact that nobody wants kale.

What everyone always says about surveys is that you want them to be short and to the point so that people will actually do them. However, the first survey we distributed was lengthy and in-depth. We wanted to get as much information as possible and hoped that people who were keen were going to fill out a 10 or 15 minute survey. We were also hopeful that many of those completing the survey would become our clients and forward the survey to others in need. And they totally did.

We also made an effort to create boxes that had a wide variety of produce, produce that would last for different periods of time and as much locally-grown food as possible, which meant the contents of the boxes varied greatly due to seasonality. Food boxes were picked up at central spots within each community. We ran the majority of the program through the winter, so there ended up being a lot of root vegetables in there. But people seemed to like those, so that was fine. At least it wasn’t kale.

No Need to Reinvent the Wheel

Food boxes aren’t a new idea. There are a lot of great organizations all over Canada – and probably the rest of the world – who have distributed healthy food to people with limited access to it. We read relevant literature and approached nearby organizations.

Loaves & Fishes Food Bank in Nanaimo operated as a traditional food bank but has now transitioned into a food waste recovery model. They pick up edible produce from grocery stores that otherwise would go to pig farmers or compost. Closer to home, LUSH Valley has been working on food security in the Comox Valley for 20 years, helping people gain local food system skills, knowledge and access to good food.

We used the Nanaimo FoodShare’s Good Food Box program to model our subsidy system, including the use of an honour system, designed to eliminate barriers introduced by excessive paperwork and/or stigma. The organizations mentioned above gave us valuable feedback and shared the opportunities and challenges they experienced with their program. 

In order to make the program accessible to a wide range of demographics, pricing was modelled via a sliding-scale system with two pricing options. Those able to pay full price for a box paid $25/box and those with a low-income paid $10/box. Each box contained $20 worth of produce, and the $5 income from full-priced boxes went towards program expenses such as cardboard boxes, delivery, and a small commission for the Community Coordinators (who otherwise volunteered). Those who could pay it forward did, and those who needed the help benefited via the subsidy. Subsidy use was run on an honour-system. Overwhelming majority chose to pay the full price. They wanted to both support the program, because they saw its value, but also wanted to avoid travel to get their food.

Other than the pricing and subsidy system, however, in the end we needed a different overall model than any of those organizations were using. The timeline on getting the program up and running – as well as the urgent need – proved restrictive in some ways.

We needed to get something off the ground and running, so we went with a wholesaler/distributor instead of focusing on local products, simply because they already had the infrastructure set up. The benefits of having a wholesaler/distributor included numerous pros:

  • Having one person to place orders with, versus multiple product sellers 
  • In being able to use their reasonably-priced delivery services 
    • either partial or complete delivery by wholesaler (community dependant)
    • $17 per truckload compared to upwards of $300 per truckload from other sources 
    • Delivery to remote locations such as those in our program provide significant risk of damage to vehicles and trailers. By using a large company, these costs are absorbed by being spread across the company. In local companies, these risks would be significantly more troublesome. 
  • The wholesaler organized the sales, pickup of produce, and at least part of the delivery 
  • Wholesalers provide produce at low cost due to bulk ordering nature 

The challenge of using a wholesaler includes having less agency over using local growers in your program, however this is likely dependent on the sales associate you are working with. In our case, there was really no other way we could have delivered that much food in that timeframe without buying our own trucks and trailers, that sort of thing. But hopefully that’s where we’ll get to eventually.

Speaking of Transportation

Transportation is, in many ways, one of the main reasons for many of the food security problems rural communities face. Driving several hours to purchase fresh food creates an expense that many communities struggle to meet. Even if someone is doing one trip per month to get one of the food boxes, that adds $80 or $100 to their expenses. That is a significant cost for many people. For example, we heard a story of a person who was insuring their car one day a month, allowing them to drive and purchase groceries. It is important to remember that others don’t have access to transportation at all.

The cost of transportation is one of the major obstacles. However, there are others. Many people do not want to travel in the winter as it may be dangerous due to poor road maintenance and difficult road conditions, such as occasional mud or rock slide that will sometimes close off the roads altogether. As such, some people who could afford to travel for their groceries took advantage of the food box program instead, if only for the convenience. 

Two children sitting on the floor looking at the Good Food Box
A family enjoying their Good Food Box in Gold River, BC



Transportation was wildly challenging for us to coordinate as well. For example, delivering goods to Kyuquot first required a delivery to Gold River. The food would then be unloaded from a truck, and loaded into a boat, then transferred to smaller boats, and then onto a series of ATVs before ending up in the community.

We even had a partial boat load of produce dropped off to a wrong island, where that food then had to wait for a week before it could be retrieved and relocated to the right location. The shipping company rectified this issue a week later, however this incident very likely decreased the community’s trust in the program. Trust in the ‘community outsiders’ starting the program was something that was very important when launching the program pilot in each community, particularly from an organization not well known to most. Trust was largely rectified when local Community Coordinators were implemented in each location. Unfortunately, the Kyuquot program did not go past the pilot attempt. 

To deliver in another community, we hired a subcontractor to bring the produce from a large distribution centre to the remote community. The cost of delivery was based on whether that contractor was also bringing the liquor store order to the community at the same time. In order to account for this, we needed to budget delivery on an estimation of how often we would need to pay full price ($33 versus $300). 


Another challenge was finding facilities within the communities where we could pack the boxes. The produce was arriving in bulk on trucks, and we needed space to divide it up into boxes so we could get them out to those who ordered them. Community halls were closed to people due to COVID-19. This may not have been a problem if not for the pandemic, but it could still prove to be a challenge that should not be overlooked by anyone interested in starting up such a program. There were various community groups that wanted to work with us and offered, but in one case we needed to rent a space, which was a financial strain on the program. All but one community found space in which to pack boxes. Zeballos provided grant-in-aid use of a community hall. In Tahsis and Sayward, the Community Coordinators packed boxes from their home or place of business. In Gold River, boxes were packed first at Reveller’s Club and then the local highschool where students volunteered their time to pack boxes as part of their graduating volunteer hours. In Campbell River, we rented the space from Navy League Hall. The Hall offered a fee of $100 per use or proposed in-lieu of rent (ex. grant writing help). Although the in-lieu option was tempting, we did not have staff capacity at the time, so paying a small fee was more suitable at the time. 

Community Acceptance

In one community, there was pushback from some elected officials against the concept itself. There was a space, owned by the town, that would have been perfect for the program. However, some members of the town council were concerned that the program may hinder the possibility of someone opening up a grocery store. Although we did not believe that our program would pose a conflict for a gracey store, it is important to consider businesses in a community that may be impacted by such a program. Is it fair to be using public funds or donated funds to come into a community and compete with its businesses? On the other hand, many people were seeking our help because the food in their grocery stores was too expensive. While the benefits of any particular program may outweigh the costs, it is important to consider the impacts of such a program on all aspects of the community, particularly in smaller communities.


During the seven month trial period (from September 2020 through May 2021), we distributed 2,012 boxes of food to more than 700 individuals. That’s over 37,000 pounds of produce procured, transported, divided up into individual boxes and distributed to households. It’s also 350 per cent more than we’d hoped to be able to accomplish when we pitched the idea in the initial grant application.

In our final survey, respondents were overwhelmingly supportive and thankful for the program. About 89 per cent said the program made it easier for them to obtain fresh and healthy food, there was a reported average decrease in the time spent grocery shopping per month by two hours, and more than three quarters of respondents said the food boxes “aided in their personal health during the pandemic.”

A sign that states 'curd side pick-up' with a small building and mountain in the background
COVID-19 safe pick up location in Sayward, BC

Lessons Learned

Think about how money is going to flow

Think about how you accept payment. When we were looking at different service providers to enable us to collect money from people for the boxes, we looked at PayPal and other third-party providers, and some of them were just going to be cost prohibitive. We ended up having e-transfers going directly to our credit union, but that won’t work if people want to use credit cards. Thankfully, we haven’t heard of anyone wanting to use their credit card, but it’s something you need to really consider. We also had our local coordinators accepting cash payments, but that’s a lot to ask of your volunteers.

Be flexible

There’s a lot of juggling that needs to happen when you run a program like this. Sometimes what you ordered isn’t on the truck when it arrives. Sometimes the truck itself doesn’t arrive. You need to be able to think on your feet and react to whatever happens that is out of your control. Things don’t usually go horribly wrong, but there’s almost always something you need to adapt to. Maybe a boat goes to the wrong island. Maybe there aren’t any carrots so everyone gets extra onions. Sometimes you find out nobody wants kale or cilantro and they’re all mad at you for a week or so.

Believe in the goodness of people

When you stigmatize people by making things really restrictive, people don’t want to access your services. It’s not about who ‘deserves’ to get a subsidy or a box of free food, because as soon as you do that, people feel stigmatized and won’t take part. That’s why we made sure that there was no distinction or restriction to accessing the program. Nobody knew who was getting a subsidized box when they came to pick it up. Nobody knew who was getting a free box. Generally, people paid full price if they could. It can be hard to convince funders of that, sometimes. They don’t want their money to be wasted and they don’t want their generosity to be taken advantage of. But it’s borne out by our research and the results of this project that when people could pay more, they did pay more. It shows that we don’t have to impose all kinds of restrictions like proving hardship or declaring your income to prove you need support. It turns out that you can, in fact, trust people.

Local coordinators

Each community needs to have “boots-on-the-ground” coordination when you’re running a program like this. Local community coordinators know those communities and they know those people. Although we do some work remotely, the vast majority of our work is in Campbell River. We recognize that  we do not know those communities like they know themselves. For example, in one of the small communities, the local coordinator knew that there were many folks who didn’t use a computer and so couldn’t place an order for a box – and might not know about the program in the first place – so she went door-to-door promoting the program and taking orders with a pen, a piece of paper and a clipboard. This is something we would likely not have identified without a community coordinator.

The Future

We are in the process of gathering funds for our own refrigerated trailer. We have managed to secure some funding, but are still seeking additional funds. A refrigerated trailer would allow us to provide more locally-produced food to these communities, because our distributor won’t take food on their trucks that they didn’t source, and it is hard for them to work with small farmers. This truck will also be key to being able to keep more of the food that is picked during Greenways’ Fruit Tree program fresh longer and enable it to be distributed further away. Basically, we want to incorporate more local food and more waste recovery food. But we’ve proved the concept. It works. It’s important. People want it. Now let’s grow it.

Infant sucking on an apple from the food box

Safe to say it was a hit in our household...I turned around and my baby had helped herself. Mission accomplished, I'd say. Thank you!

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