Food Fund: BMOS Students Combatting Hunger Create Recovered Produce Delivery Service

In August I came across a post in a Facebook group for London vegans discussing a company called Food Fund, a new farm-to-table produce delivery service which operates on a subscription basis. As someone who loves the convenience of online shopping, adores fresh food and is uncomfortable with the current structure of the food industry—while being vegan allows me to avoid a lot of these issues, they often extend to our produce—naturally, I checked out the website. Within half an hour I reached out to the company.

To my surprise, I discovered that both business partners, Divyansh Ojha and Alysaa Co, are second year Bachelor of Management and Organizational Studies (BMOS) students at Western University. At this point it seemed too good to be true, so I set up a meeting with the duo to further learn about Food Fund.

Before long, I found myself embarking on a month(+) long experiment with Food Fund subscription boxes.

Week One: The Starter - Mixed Harvest

As I discussed the initiative with Ojha and Co, I realized that these students knew what they were talking about. They saw two related problems in our community—issues of food surplus, waste and hunger—and did the research needed to make meaningful change.

Ojha explained that “Food Fund was started to get answers” rather than “with a business in mind.” In December of his first year at Western, he and his family went to pick up pizza when he saw something that shook him to the point of action.

“I saw a lot of people wearing big parkas and they had bins of ‘something’ that was being thrown away into the dumpster,” he said. Looking closer, Ojha realized the bins—so large they were being lifted by machines—were full of food. “That was a pretty vivid thing to see, because I don’t even know if my family consumes that much in a year which I saw being thrown out in seconds.”

At the next stop sign, he saw a homeless man across the road holding a sign reading, “Homeless and Hungry.”

“At that point, it hit me. If we’re throwing out thousands and thousands and thousands of pounds of food, why do we have people who are hungry?”

Through further research, Ojha learned that food waste has two main causes: surplus and cosmetic imperfections. While this food is perfectly fine and nutritious to eat, it is often thrown out because farmers cannot store the produce without significant cost and they are unable to sell produce imperfect in appearance.

“You really cannot just blame the farmers for doing what they’re doing because we don’t accept the rest of their harvest,” said Ojha.

Ojha realized that purchasing recovered produce for retail—items which would have otherwise been trashed—and challenging the notion that only perfect-looking produce is safe and tastes good could solve the food insecurity and food waste problem.

“If we can change one, the other will automatically change,” he said.

At the beginning of this summer, Ojha reached out to friend and classmate Co in hopes she would see his vision.

“I remember the night [Ojha] told me, I was actually on vacation in Hong Kong,” Co said. “After about two hours of, ‘this is stupid, this is a terrible idea,’ at the end I was like, ‘oh shoot, I see it. We need to do this.’”

Divyansh Ojha (left) and Alysaa Co (right)

After both initially being overwhelmed by the number of steps it took to break into the food industry in Ontario, Co said the more suppliers and farmers the duo spoke to, the more feasible Food Fund became.

The farmers they spoke to each waste roughly 40,000lbs of produce a day due to the afore mentioned surplus and cosmetic imperfections.

“That’s a day. In one day. I don’t even know how many families you could feed,” said Ojha.

Food Fund purchases perfectly fine produce that will otherwise end up in the compost, or worse, a landfill. Not only does this help our environment, but it draws attention to the gross inefficiencies of the food industry.

While this all sounded good in principle, and I saw my own values reflected in the business, I still had doubts about its feasibility. However, with such cheap options, I figured I would give it a proper test run, a full month, to see if this was something that could really work.

Week 1: The Starter

@Lady.Rosie getting excited about The Starter

The first box I purchased was The Starter, a $20 box with 10lb of produce. Personally, I don’t eat as much produce as I would like, so I figured this would be a good incentive to work through some fruits and veggies. I eat a lot of fruit but also wanted some veg, so each week I got a “Mixed Harvest” box. That being said, 10lb of produce for just me and my bunny (an avid veggie lover but also an absolutely tiny animal) was an ambitious start for me, but I was determined.

Let me just say: receiving the first box was exciting. When I woke up that first Saturday, I pulled my boyfriend out of bed, hauled him upstairs, and tore open the box. It was bursting with vibrant, fresh greens and loaded with massive, funky carrots, tomatoes, bananas and other tasty goods.

“You also don’t have to be there when we deliver, which is a huge plus because we know a lot of students might not even be awake on a Saturday morning,” said Co.

Eagerly unloading the box, I discovered it was so fresh that I had also been sent a spider friend! This reminded me of my conversation with Ojha and Co the week prior, where they explained that the produce in their boxes is picked up straight from local farms or, for items our Canadian climate can’t produce, the Toronto Food Terminal Board each Friday.

“It’s less than 24 hours between the farm and the customer, which you’ll never get at a grocery store. You won’t even get that at a farmer’s market sometimes,” said Ojha. “I think the thing people don’t realize is, our grocery stores, that food goes from the farm off to the distributor that then goes to the grocery store. There’s like five steps in between… so from you to the farm, it’s probably at least a week, if not more.”

You could tell. Not only did the produce last much longer than what I would typically find at FreshCo, but the flavour was richer. The grapes had hardly left the box before I was shoving them into my mouth one after another like they were the last thing I would ever eat. It didn’t matter if the carrots were a little wonky because, well, I was cooking with them and cutting them up anyway. It was the flavour I was after, and the flavour I was getting.

Week 2: The Starter - Box 2

The second week I decided to stick with The Starter, though I definitely hadn’t eaten everything I was sent. Luckily, the produce was still good to go, but I quickly found myself with a fridge crisper that was about to burst and no room on my shelves for anything but veggies.

This box was just as delicious as the first, but I definitely overestimated myself. My food started going bad left and right as I tried to finish it—more accurately, I wasn’t trying that hard and was mostly eating take out because of school stress—and I felt guilty for not eating as well as I should have been and for wasting so much food. After all, what initially got me so excited about Food Fund outside of the delivery and student aspect was that it tackled the issue of food waste.

I did a touch more research and was thrilled to find The Mini, a $10 box with 5lbs of produce instead of 10lbs. This seemed like a much more realistic option for me, so I figured I would switch my subscription for the upcoming week.

By this point, many of my roommates had seen my boxes (and mini produce photo shoots in our living room) and began asking questions about it. For example, how did it work? Why was I so excited about it? Did I think it was worth it?

Giving a quick overview of the initiative to a few of my roommates—we’re all Faculty of Media and Information (FIMS), so we know the basics of the food industry and prefer to search for alternatives—and telling them Ojha’s story, they began to express interest in trying a box.

Week 3: The Mini

The Mini was definitely a better size for me because when I’m this busy I don’t eat too many fresh veggies; I’ll admit, I’m a fan of canned tomatoes, beans, and frozen veggies and get a lot of my nutrients from those. This gave me a good amount of easy-to-grab fruit and essential veg, but unfortunately no greens. I find lettuce, kale and spinach (a green I need a lot of for my vegan diet) the easiest fresh vegetables for me to incorporate into my cooking—aside from mushrooms—so getting a box without any of these wasn’t something I could realistically do each week.

At this point I was a little upset with the variety of selections—they had pretty much been all the same options so far. I was loving the food I was eating, but I like to diversify my diet as much as possible and it’s essential my bunny eats a wide variety, too, in order to avoid serious health concerns. I also grew up in a household of adventurous eaters, so I was used to having zucchini, eggplant, green beans, etc. on a regular basis, as well as more specialty foods due to the plethora of different styles of cuisine I eat. Furthermore, I really dig red, yellow and orange peppers, but all I was getting so far was green peppers (I found this a little overwhelming because I rarely cook with green bell pepper).

This being said, Food Fund was on its third week. Logistically speaking, including niche ingredients like the kinds I often use would be totally impractical because the company was still getting its feet on the ground and learning about the needs of its customers. Moreover, the produce I wanted is often out-of-season. To be honest, it was a bit of a wake up call for me as I realized that I don’t base my eating on what is in season even though it’s something I firmly believe in paying attention to.

At this point, three of my roommates had spoken to me about trying out a Food Fund box.

“It was the story behind Food Fund: this idea of trying, in a very productive and convenient way, to tackle this huge systemic problem of food sustainability and food waste in a very localized, personal manner,” said fourth year MPI student Nikky Manfredi. “I really really want to support someone doing that—finding a way to use what they’re learning in such a meaningful, ethical way. How could you not support a company like that?”

Kiija Gargarello, fourth year MTP student, furthered: “A lot of the stuff I’m buying is fruits and vegetables, so I was excited to get that delivered and then maybe go to the grocery store less and switch things up once in awhile as they have different options.”

The more my roommates expressed interest, the more I thought about The Feast box. When initially speaking with Co and Ojha, they mentioned this box could be a good option for roommates looking to eat more fresh produce while getting the most variety out of the box.

“A lot of students live in a house with four or five people,” Co said. “I think the beauty of that is you can all split the box.”

Considering variety had been one of my primary concerns, I mentioned this to my roommates and we embarked upon the final test: The Feast.

Week 4: The Feast

The Feast by Food Fund

I wanted to try this box because it’s 20lb and $40 which, split between four of us, was a $10 trial for one week. That meant, if it didn’t go well, we weren’t taking a huge loss and got to try out something fun together.

My third roommate to jump on board, fourth year MIT student Marisa Cho, explained “it was nice for just $10 to get some essential veggies and fruit, and it made my week a lot more convenient.” She also liked how quickly the box arrived; having ordered the box communally on the Wednesday night, what we got was still fresh in our minds when the box arrived on the Saturday.

Each roommate agreed with Cho on the convenience front, as we didn’t have to deal with the LTC while carrying heavy produce back from the grocery store.

Manfredi noted that the box helped bring our house together. “Doing it with my roommates offered a communal experience that I think we often lose,” she said. “We’re all about processed foods now, you know, we’re on the run—which I get, it makes sense, we’re students—but it was really cool to be able to share and figure out what each of us wanted and kind of have that communal experience of opening the box and sharing fresh produce from local farmers.”

When the box arrived on Saturday, the four of us gathered in our living room and sorted through the box together, dividing our produce among us.

“It was really easy in the fact that we all worked it out, but I see it being difficult if people wanted a certain amount of something and we didn’t get that, and then [people] could be like ‘oh, well I wanted this,’” said Gargarello.

We noticed the struggles of dividing the box up between four independent eaters very quickly, even though we were able to sort through the produce without a problem. For one, our diets vary greatly from person to person and, for two, we were sharing the weight of the box. For example, I ordered a cantaloupe as I had yet to see that be an option, but cantaloupe weighs significantly more than, say, cucumbers. This limited how much we got of everything else in our box, making it hard to predict future boxes.

“I would have liked a personal one so I could pick and choose exactly what I wanted because, I love the fact that we got to choose together, but it is a little vague knowing how much is coming of each selection of everything,” Manfredi explained.

Our greatest struggle was trying to split the one green; the website doesn’t have an option to add additional greens to your box and all four of us would have liked at least half of one, if not a whole.

“Getting a Feast and having a possibility that it’s for roommates, and you get one head of lettuce, it’s unrealistic,” said Gargarello. “I understand that for a family you don’t need three heads of lettuce—well, I don’t know that—but for us, as roommates, obviously there could be more than one of us who wants it. So that could be something they could look into.”

Wondering if Food Fund had any options or ideas for more greens and veggies, I asked Co what she would suggest for us.

“I would recommend getting the Veggie Signature and Mixed Starter. That way you're spending $50 total (if that's not too expensive) and you get mostly veggie and still some fruit,” said Co. “Plus the veggie signature has more variety of veggie!”

If our house were to order that combination of boxes, we would be receiving two greens each week, which would be a bit more feasible than just one.

Week 5: No Box

After the final week of my Food Fund experiment, I decided not to get a box in order to compare the value to what I could get at places like FreshCo or, my personal favourite, Food Island. Funnily enough, I was so busy and on the go that I didn’t end up going grocery shopping that week… nor the one after it. I delved into my Just Eat app and my non-perishables, dug through my freezer, and kept saying I’d “go shopping tomorrow.”

I wasn’t the only member of my house who felt the same way.

“Not having it for the week made it so much clearer how convenient getting a box delivered is,” said Gargarello. “I think it’s something I’d need to play around with to find what’s right for me, but it’s something I’m excited to try again when I get back from Reading Week.”

Cho and Manfredi both agreed, noting they would be open to trying it again but would likely get their own box as food is such a personal thing.

“I would prefer to do it on my own, but I wouldn’t be opposed to trying to split it with maybe one or two other people,” said Gargarello. “I think The Feast was just not enough for the four… well? We did get a lot, it was just certain things we didn't get enough of.”

Final Thoughts

Week Two: The Starter - Mixed Harvest

One of the most interesting parts of my Food Fund trial were my interactions with Co and Ojha. Each week, I would receive a personal message to check in on my order to ensure I was satisfied. If I had any questions or recommendations, they answered them in a flash—I’m talking less than five minutes here. From what I’ve seen from the comments on its Facebook page, this doesn’t appear to be an isolated case.

When I got confused about switching order types, Co messaged me and offered to explain it and make changes for me. Furthermore, when I forgot to pick my selections for the second week, Co reminded me how long I had left and immediately fixed a server glitch that was preventing me from choosing my produce for the week. Moreover, both partners were open to feedback and constructive criticism and actively implemented suggestions, such as adding an option for having squash in your box for a fixed price so it doesn’t affect the weight of the box and even looking into things like eggplant.

The duo believes it is important to, “go out of [their] way and make sure that [customers are] happy with the experience and know that their box is not just doing us good and not just doing them good, but is helping everyone to be better off,” said Ojha. “That, I feel, is the essence of Food Fund.”I never once questioned that Food Fund would be there to provide the kind of customer service I wanted, and I never once questioned that they were in this to build a sustainable business practice which has the capacity to create change in our community. After a month of boxes and too long without one, I can guarantee that Food Fund has found itself a loyal customer who is just as passionate about the business as Ojha and Co.

Food Fund delivers produce to your door on Saturday mornings; order your first box here and comment your thoughts below! 

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