November 19, 2018

BY ROLAND FLEMING

High school students across Canada have come up with an award-winning answer to the problem of food insecurity. Although Canada remains a developed and comparatively well-nourished nation, it may be surprising to know there are still many Canadians living in food insecure households. According to the 2011-2012 Canadian Community Health Survey, approximately eight per cent of Canadian households experienced food insecurity.

This means that one or more members of a household do not have access to the variety or quantity of food they need to be healthy. Every year, hundreds of exceptional high school students from across the nation are selected to reside at designated university campuses and compete to come up with a solution to a problem. The mission of the SHAD program is to empower exceptional youth to make the world a better place. This year students tackled the problem of food insecurity and the team at Queens University came up with a solution called Farms2Forks. This online platform would connect farmers to consumers while providing help for low-income families.

“To help the food insecure as well as small scale farmers, obviously to fulfill that goal would be the benchmark,” said Akash Jain, CEO on the project.

There are many low-income households that are food insecure. Family members can’t afford to buy healthy fresh produce, or can’t afford transportation in order to access it. Farms2Forks works to solve these problems by allowing those with low income to place orders at a 30 per cent discount, which includes a delivery service. To be eligible all they would need to do is upload pictures of government assistance cheques.
On Oct. 27, the team was awarded for having the best idea to combat food insecurity of the 13 competing campuses across Canada. The Farms2Forks team consisted of 34 members lead by Jain. The group was further subdivided into seven teams with different purposes, each with a team lead that reported to Jain. At the time, Jain had just finished Grade 10. He currently is in high school at Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute.

“It was a really steep learning curve for me, I learnt a lot … it taught me the importance of effective leadership” he said.

The team’s idea addresses problems for farmers, busy consumers and low-income families. After talking to farmers in the Elmira area, team member Anushka Birla said some expressed difficulties in selling their products. The closest farmers market is in St. Jacobs and it is only open twice a week. Most people do not drive to farms to purchase their product.

Birla is from Kitchener and is in Grade 12 at Cameron Heights Collegiate. She took on the role of marketing and finding sponsors for the project. She was also in charge of social media. Birla, along with other team members, talked to both farmers and consumers to gauge interest in the idea. They contacted over 1,000 farmers and processors across Canada, receiving many endorsements.

“They said it would be really useful because they find it difficult to directly connect with customers, because they are far away from urban areas,” said Birla. The solution involves setting up local distribution warehouses where farmers could bring product to be sold.

“The biggest point … they liked about our idea, is it allowed them to reach more customers,” said Birla. The plan includes a website that anyone can order food from. The plan is twofold with both a business and charitable side. On the business side, those who want the convenient service of having farm fresh food delivered to their door could use the website to make that happen.

The main selling point to higher-income customers would be the convenience, and also the charitable cause. Those with higher incomes may have the money to purchase healthy food, but not have the time to shop for it. The delivery service allows them to eat healthy without eating up their time. Meanwhile, they would be helping low-income families have access to quality food.

A small portion of income generated from the business side would help subsidize the 30 per cent discount for low-income customers. Farmers, who are often in higher income brackets and possibly looking for tax breaks, could also help to subsidize the cost of food by taking less for their product and donating the rest to the Farms2Forks charitable organization.

“I want people to have the opportunity to have fresh food at their doorstep,” said Birla.

Currently the project remains theoretical, but both Birla and Jain hope they could see this system become a reality someday. While their business plan suggests it would be profitable within four years, there are enormous startup costs that would need serious investment for this to happen. The costs of setting up the proposed distribution centres alone would be quite substantial. However, Jain is still considering the possibility of making this a reality.

“When you work together and collaborate with a great group of people, you can really achieve some pretty cool things,” he said.

“It seems a fair bit of our team is interested in taking this to the next level. I’ll have to see how many people are on board with it.”

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