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'If you don't have money, it's OK': Pay-what-you-want market helps food-insecure families in Calgary

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Every Thursday evening, Open Market volunteers set up tables in the Meadowlark Park Community Association hall to display all the fruits and vegetables for sale.

James Gamage, director of innovation for the Social Impact Lab at United Way of Calgary and Area, says the items have suggested prices marked on them.

"So when it comes to the point of sale, we talk about the value of the goods, we tell them the overall suggested price, but they can decide what they want to pay," he said.

Gamage says it's a real human story and every week, he and volunteers see families and individuals benefiting and the program is helping to feed those who otherwise would struggle.

"If they have extra money and want to pay it forward to their community, they can pay extra," he said.

"They could pay their bill, they could pay less or they could pay nothing at all, so we give the power to the consumer to decide how much they are able or willing to pay."

The Social Impact Lab partnered with Fresh Routes, who tested the pay-what-you-want model a few years ago and saw a need for it in the community.

Nikita Scringer, CEO, describes Fresh Routes as a non-profit social enterprise with a mission to provide access to fresh, healthy, affordable food in Calgary.

"I think it's important to de-stigmatize being able to access a basic need, which is food," she said.

"We have fresh produce, which is oftentimes very expensive, so we want to offer that. And we have other vendors, so we had bakers there and we have a person that grows mushrooms."

Scringer says the model is working and clients regularly express their gratitude for the program.

Open Market is always looking for more volunteers and vendors.

"We really want other vendors to come participate," she said.

"We have no table fees, so it's a low entry barrier to access the markets and we just want to make it a fun environment for everyone."

Pam Downey, a service designer at J5 Design working with the Social Impact Lab, has worked to make the market a positive and dignified experience for customers.

"I helped to create the experience within the markets and to really design how the intangible atmosphere comes together," she said.

"We do have a feedback wall, so people can write their feedback on Post-it notes and (many write), 'Thank you for providing this opportunity for me and my family,' and those kinds of sentiments."

Pushpa Mehre says it's hard to balance the budget at her home because while her husband works, his hours aren't consistent, so some months, she has a hard time finding food for herself and her two children.

"And so I go there, I buy something and I don't have any money, so I feel a little bit nervous," she said.

"But the guys working there said, 'Don't feel bad and take whatever you want.'"

Mehre says there are many healthy items that she just can't afford to bring home from a regular grocery store.

"My family can't afford it and everything is very expensive – electricity, rent and internet, phone bills and heat," she said.

"Everything is so much more expensive now and it's very difficult for families."

Mehre is grateful for the help she's received from Open Market and now is a volunteer cashier, helping other customers feel comfortable paying what they can at the register.

"I volunteer at many other places also, because I feel good," she said.

"When I came here (from India), many people helped me and now it's my time to give something back, so I help (at Open Market) and volunteer and I feel very good and I feel proud to be doing something for my community."

You can learn more about Open Market at openmarketcalgary.ca.

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