Ep. 8 - Collaboration, Not Duplication

May 17, 2023

In this episode, Sydney Johnson discusses the importance of collaboration and community-building when starting a pay what you want market with Lourdes Juan and Nikita Scringer from Fresh Routes. They share their experiences to create a sustainable market that values the community's needs and desires.

Listen to this episode

May 17, 2023; Collaboration, Not Duplication



Welcome to this episode of Responsible Disruption. My name is Sydney Johnson, and I'm the Design Lead at J5 and in the Social Impact Lab. And I'm your host. Today we are talking to two local social impact drivers, Lourdes Juan and Nikita Springer, who are bringing the pay what you want model from theory to reality. A little bit about our guest today. Lourdes is a Calgary based entrepreneur and urban planner who overseas a diverse array of companies and nonprofits she has founded, including Soma + Hammam and Spa, Hive Developments, Leftovers Foundation, Fresh Routes and Knead technologies. Her community advocacy is vast and also includes serving on numerous local and national boards related to urban planning and design, development appeals, affordable housing, impact investment and business leadership.

And named as one of CBC's 150 Black Women, making Canada better, Nikita Scringer is the director of operations for Fresh Routes, a nonprofit social enterprise that brings mobile markets and healthy, affordable fresh produce and food to underserved communities in a dignified ways. As a professional cook, community advocate, and entrepreneur, Nikita is passionate about bridging the gap between traditional food systems and the many intersectional challenges that arise when tackling food insecurity. When she's not at work, Nikita enjoys trying new restaurants and recipes, traveling and hanging out with her friends, family, and pets. Thank you both so much for joining me today.


Thanks for that great intro, Syd.


Yeah! Thanks for having us.

01:37 SYDNEY: I managed to get through that in maybe one, two breaths, so that’s good. Before we begin each episode, we really like to give our listeners a chance to get you to know you a little bit more beyond our bios. So I'll ask you a few different personal questions, if that's OK. First of all, how did you find yourself working in this space and why are you passionate about the work that you do?

01:55 NIKITA: I'll go first. Sure, so I've always been into the food and culinary industry and always had a passion for helping people. So my parents were big on community service and just treating everyone with respect and making sure that everybody had enough and a seat at the table. And so as I grew up, I became passionate about the charity and nonprofit sector and fresh fruits was a perfect opportunity to combine my love of food and giving back.

02:28 SYDNEY: Ohh. Amazing! Thanks Nikita. And Lourdes?

02:30 LOURDES: So I guess similarly, except I'm a terrible cook and so while I love and appreciate food, I'm not as good as cooking with it. But similarly in the fact that my family was also really connected to their community. My dad went back to school fairly late in life and finished engineering, and so my mom worked three jobs to raise three kids in her 20s and really relied on, I think our family and friends and really relied on that village. And so I think we just grew up with that always in the back of our heads, that it takes community to make things work.

03:04 SYDNEY: Yeah, and food is such a big connection connector of community, right? In researching for this project, Lourdes, we came across a story about how you got into the space by picking up 100 pounds of bread from a bakery 10 years ago.

03:18 LOURDES: That is correct.

03:19 SYDNEY: Tell me the story.

03:27 LOURDES: Yeah. So I actually think it was about 200 pounds. It was just a wild amount of bread. So I don't come from the food space or the social impact space, formally. I'm an urban planner by profession but my cousin had asked me to pick up just a donation with him to bring to, I think his church at the time. But there was like over 200 pounds of bread at this bakery and there was no way that he was going to haul it in his car and and for it to all get used up for his use. And so we took the rest to the Drop-in Center and the gentleman at the gate said they would use the food by noon the next day because they serve 3000 meals a day. I think those numbers just really struck me and if you ever get the opportunity to see what 200 pounds of bread looks like. I mean, it fills the back of a pickup truck and even more. And to know that that was going to go to waste unless someone's there to pick it up and distribute it. Yeah, it really sort of got to me. And so I started to just find out who else was needing food pickups or wasting food and or the excess was and who could use it in the city.

04:29 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely. So that kind of brings us to the trail head of pay what you want.  So in the last episode, we had on Responsible Disruption, myself and Erika, were sitting down and talking a little bit about the Social Impact Lab’s journey towards pay what you want, but I want to hear from both of you about what your journey is to finding that model and a little bit about what you've learned along that journey too.

04:56 LOURDES: Yeah, I can start, so trailheads, a great word. So Leftovers became... so the foundation that I started from food rescue, it really became an incubator, I suppose, of different food innovative ideas in the social impact space and so Fresh Routes where Nikita and I worked today, came out of a pilot project from Leftovers, and so did sort of this pay what you want concept. We really understood that the work at Leftovers to redirect and donate food was not the solution to food security or innovation in general, and so we really needed to look at what are the other parts of the pieces of the puzzle that really connect everything together. And so yeah, that's how they pay what you want started. And I'm terrible at operations and Nikita is really great at them, so we formed a really great cohesive team and I'll let Nikita talk about the pay what you want portion, but that's kind of how it started.

05:55 NIKITA: Yeah, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to pilot for about six months last year. And just really kind of play with the model of pay what you want. It's new to a lot of people so a big piece of that was obviously educating people on what it is and the language around it and why we wanted to be intentional about “pay what you want” versus “pay what you can” or using other words. And it was a great opportunity for us to bring food to the people that need it in a dignified way so that's always been a big piece of the work we're doing at Fresh Routes and it extended into the pay which you want model as well. And it was very successful. We learned a lot, that's for sure.

06:38 SYDNEY: Well, I just want to pull on that thread a little bit because I know the answer, but in case our listeners don't, why do we “say pay what you want” instead of “pay what you can”?

06:46 LOURDES: So “pay what you want” is a more dignified approach to saying it, because if we say “pay what you can”, it's sort of, I guess, like derogatory in a way. Just pay whatever you can, because we need the money, but really we want to be able to offer a really inclusive experience, so if you are using the language of pay what you want, I think invites not only people trying to decide what they want to pay, but also a conversation around food and how much they need at their table to feed their family or to feed themselves.

07:19 SYDNEY: Yeah, wonderfully said and to me it invokes that idea of choice. Like “can” is implying that you should do something and “want” is implying that you can do whatever you want.

07:29 NIKITA: It's more empowering of a word, I think too. It gives people the permission to be able to pay what they want and choose what they want.

07:38 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely. You mentioned some of those like learnings from those pilots and I know we've talked about them in the past, but I'm curious of what, what are the ones that stick with you today?

07:50 NIKITA: There are so many. I'd say the biggest one is people really want to, even when they might be struggling themselves, want to make sure there's enough for everyone else. So we would have a lot of customers that would be afraid to take what they need. And then we'd see the opposite, where there was customers almost taking too much, and so each week it was just really educating people on the fact that we had enough. There was enough for everyone and by taking what they need, they were leaving stuff for other people and that we would be back next week providing food for them again so it was really just about having those conversations and making a safe space to have those conversations with people and letting them know that we were there help.

08:40 LOURDES: That’s exactly it. It wasn't about slapping their hand if they took too much. It was about having that conversation about, we can feed more people if everyone's just taking what they need, nothing goes to waste and and we'll see you again next week. And like, really to keep that sustainability for the market. And I think that's one of the side pieces of this work is that it's not only about food, it's about talking about situations and where everyone is at.

I had a gentleman come to the Fresh Routes market actually and he didn't have any money that week and Fresh Routes is an affordable model. It's not pay what you want or this market wasn't. And he just needed a couple onions like wanted to cook with onions that day. And he didn't have any money. So I said, “I'll take care of it. I got you and just come see us next week.” So he looked me in the eye and said, “I promise I'll be back next week.” And I of course didn't think anything of it. And then of course, the next week he was there with $0.70 to pay for the two onions. And so people want to engage. They want to have these conversations. And I, for the most part, people want to be honest and pay for the food that they put on their table.

09:50 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely. And that kind of goes to what I think is a common question. And you've touched on this a little bit, but what is the sustainability of a model like this? Because I think that's the, as I said, the common question is, well, what happens if someone takes everything and then there is no market? Or can you speak to that a little bit?

10:10 LOURDES: Like for me it requires a lot of players in different sectors to make something like this happen. It's not like a transitional transactional model where you pay a fee and you make money off of it and the business kind of... that’s not the model. There's a lot of, I think, community partners that need to be involved. There’s different types of marketing for different types of locations. There is some of the food costs that go into it. I mean, we need to sort of save for a rainy day, but make sure that people are getting that dignified food access so it can be a bit tricky. But I think the main part of it is that everyone needs a seat at the table and everyone needs to talk about what they can bring to make it pay what you want model work.

10:54 SYDNEY: Yeah, it goes right back to that idea of community and how important that surrounding and internal community is to the model.

11:02 NIKITA: Yeah, and I think back to that education piece, like letting people know that this is a small way that they can help their neighbors give back is a really important message to come across when we're marketing for the markets and letting people know what it's all about. So like you said, there's a lot of players and making sure everyone has a seat at the table is super important.

11:26 LOURDES: That buy in, everyone needs to believe in that idea, and that we can all feed each other no matter what our background is, and no matter what experience we have, we can kind of all pitch in.

11:37 SYDNEY: Absolutely. I love that. So that brings us to today where we've come together around our collaboration in the Open Market. Can you speak a little bit about how that came about?

11:52 LOURDES: So with the Social Impact Lab and J5? So I have to give full kudos to Zai Mamdani at the YYC Food Security Fund. She helped pilot the idea out of the foundation when we were just figuring out what it could look like. That sort of six month pilot. And then we saw that the Social Impact Lab was doing very similar work. And Zai said, call them up, we're not competitors in this space. We all want to make sure everyone's fed in a dignified way, and so we made a cold call, I think or a warm call since we've already had been talking about some other stuff. And yeah, kind of put two and two together and wanted to really marry resources. So kudos to Zai for seeing the bigger strategy.

12:39 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely. Nikita, maybe you can speak a little bit to like how that is functionally gonna work for people that are interested. Like, how are you... OK, you both were running these different pay what you want pilots and now you're running something together and who's playing what role and what's happening?

12:55 NIKITA: Yeah, so I think it's the marrying of a couple different parties. But there's a lot of beautiful things that can come out of that so collaborative work always comes with its challenges. But I think right off the get go, we set some parameters and made sure there was clear roles on what each group was doing and bringing to the table. So that’s been very helpful. And I think anytime you're collaborating on a bigger project like this, yeah, a lot of people might think we're competitors and maybe shouldn't be working together but competitors working together can bring things like new eyes on the project from both sides. Obviously, new ideas and idea generation in general is better.

13:42 LOURDES: Yeah, pooling resources and money. We need funding to make these projects into reality. And so I think we identified the gaps that everyone had with their own respective projects and how we can really come together and and what our strengths are and so I think that was the marriage.

13:58 SYDNEY: Yeah, 100%. I mean, I remember before we went for coffee, Lourdes, you, me and Zai, and sitting in a room with some of the other folks from the lab and being like, OK, we have this great designed experience. We know how to make this model working. We are not operators. What are we going to do?

14:21 LOURDES: Call Nikita. [Laughs]

14:22 SYDNEY: Yeah, yeah, exactly, exactly. So it's just, I think we're so lucky that the pieces have balanced the way that they have. That's wonderful. In part of our journey around pay what you want we and we've touched on the dignity piece already but for our pilot market we had three guiding principles of dignity, access and choice and that was that was really important to what we felt needed to be as a part of our market and that was not just feeling dignity when you're in the space, but also having fresh food that meets the needs of your household and choosing the food that you want, that makes sense for you and your family. Being able to actually get to where you're going. And I just want to hear about how that lands with both of you and how you see that being taken forward into Open Market.

15:13 NIKITA: Yeah, I think it's definitely part of the mission and values of Fresh Routes. So it's a natural progression into Open Market. The dignity piece is especially important and choice. I think, in the food insecurity space when you're having conversations with people, there's still some of that stigma that people that need help should just take what they can get and that there shouldn't be choice with that. So that's always been really important to Fresh Routes and I love that we're able to provide that for our customers.

15:56 LOURDES: Yeah, absolutely. So Fresh Routes has operated around these principles that are so funny that they're very similar to the principles coming out of the Lab. And we've always thought about these things. How can we make sure things are affordable, convenient, showing right up their doorstep, making sure that the food is culturally appropriate, that we have this choice that we keep talking about and then the bigger piece around Fresh Routes really digs deep is that there's no proof of income.

And so I think, for me and for the team, if I can speak for the team, we have seen time and time again how we have saddled these communities with proving how poor they are so that they can access their basic need and that makes no sense to me and actually like, really gets under my skin because I've said this before, like when Nikita and I go to the grocery store, we don't have to prove how much we make to access food We just go in and we purchase it. And that same access should be available to communities that have barriers to access healthy food. So that's sort of where Fresh Routes...every sort of project that we do or anything that we pilot, we kind of look through it with this dignified food lens.

17:03 SYDNEY: Yeah, I love that. That's a really important part for us too, and not just the, you don't have to prove that you need, but also just that this space should feel like anyone can come there. Like it should just feel like any other grocery store, not a place that when you're in it makes you feel guilty or shame or that you wouldn't want to be seen there. It should just be like, oh, you're just going to the market.

17:29 LOURDES: Exactly. You're just going to the market and because there's no proof of income, I shop at the Bridgeland market every Monday. And I know that my support and being at the market, meeting the seniors that live in Bridgeland, where I live, is an important piece of community. So again it not only becomes about the food and the fresh fruits and veggies that I feed my son, but also about meeting, you know, Pat, who's been living in Bridgeland for 35 years.

17:54 SYDNEY: Shout out to Pat! Wonderful. So this project, these initiatives are all about, of course creating access to that fresh and appropriate food in a dignified way. And there will be measurable impact for those experiencing food insecurity. But we also know that issues like this are complex and multifaceted, and the type of impact that it can have doesn't end there. Are there any intangible ripples that you think might come from this work that maybe aren't as defined as, this many people came and purchased an apple.

18:34 LOURDES: I think when we opened our first Fresh Routes market in East Village, one of the first. Most of the seniors in that area live alone. And so the weekly collision of them seeing each other and knowing their neighbor... This is very anecdotal, but it made it easier for them to ask for help between the days of you know, between the market and so again like not about food, but really working on building community and and making sure people know that there are other people in the community that care about them and and want to hear about how their day is going. And I think that is really important so it's not something that's quantifiable, but there is a real like quality aspect to that piece.

19:21 SYDNEY: Yeah, that's a perfect story. So now the fun question. How can our listeners best support Open Market and Fresh Routes beyond Open Market? If you want to make a plug for anything else.

19:33 NIKITA: Well, of course the best way to support us is to come shop at the market. The market is Open Market, so it's for everyone and we really mean it when we say that. Even just come check it out. Invite your friends., share all of the socials and the website, and get people excited and talking about what pay what you want means and how it can impact the community. I think is very important, vendors, if you're interested in joining and you have a great product. Get in touch with us and we would love to feature your product at the market. And then Fresh Routes, we have 44 markets a month of affordable produce, so come and check us out and shop at one of our Fresh Routes market.

20:15 LOURDES: Yeah, I think come shop with us for sure. Also, we're doing these locations in conjunction, particularly Open Market at a specific location. I think if I'm thinking further down the road, I would love if we had a brick and mortar location. It's so important, I think Calgary is over a million people. We need to be the city that leads in food, dignity, and food security. And so when I think about that, I think about having a brick and mortar pay what you want. And so I'm going to put that out there. I said it on this podcast first. [Laughs]

20:48 SYDNEY: I love that. Yes!

20:51 LOURDES: We need the help to get us a stable location year-round all the time.

20:57 SYDNEY: Put it out there. That’s fantastic.  Thank you both so much, Lourdes and Nikita, for your time today. We have put a lot of love and energy into developing this model and we know you have too. And we're so excited to be partnering with you to see it come to life at Open Market. We really couldn't ask to collaborate with a more, a caring group of change makers. And it's been so wonderful working with you all and chatting with you today.

For our listeners, Open Market is open for business. You can find us every Thursday at the Meadowlark Community Association. There'll be more details in the show notes, as well as some links to Fresh Routes as well that you can check out. So thanks to you for spending this time with us today and until next time, eat a good apple from Fresh Routes or Open Market. [Laughs]

[Outro music]

21:49 SYDNEY: That's all for today's episode of Responsible Disruption. Thank you for tuning in and we hope you found the conversation valuable. If you did, don't forget to follow, rate, and share wherever you get your podcasts. To stay up to date on future episodes and show notes, visit our website at the Social Impact Lab dot com. Or follow us on social media and until next time, keep on designing a better world.