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Sprouts serves up affordable, organically grown local and fair trade foodsl - photo by Darin Dueck
Sprouts serves up affordable, organically grown local and fair trade foods - photo by Darin Dueck

UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 4 | Apr. 6, 2006

Co-op Sprouts Planet-Friendly Foods

By Basil Waugh

Can’t tell your eco-footprint from a one-tonne challenge? Don’t know a “Frankenfood” from a monocrop? Sprouts, Canada’s largest student-run food co-op, intends to change all that.

Located in the basement of UBC’s Student Union Building (SUB), the not-for-profit grocery store and education centre serves up not only information on hot-button issues related to our food, but also affordable, organically grown local and fair trade foods.

Elana Cossever is president of the UBC Food Co-op, the student club that has operated Sprouts since it opened in September 2004. With over 1,000 voluntary members, it is the largest student-run food co-op of only a handful in Canada and the only co-operative campus retailer in B.C.

“People come to our store not only to buy all these amazingly tasty organic, local and fair trade foods, but also to learn about the ecological, economic, and social benefits of eating these types of foods,” says Cossever, a Master’s candidate in the School of Community and Regional Planning.

“There is so much research going on at UBC into sustainable eating practices -- our store gives people the opportunity to put the research into practice.”

In Sprouts’ small, brightly-painted location, shoppers will find artisan cheeses and breads, fresh fruit and produce, wraps, frozen soups, coffees and teas, bulk foods, snacks, condiments and vitamins. The store also sells biodegradable cleaning supplies and personal hygiene products.

Hayes Zirnhelt, a first-year engineering student who lives on campus, says that convenience is only one reason why he shops at Sprouts.

“Because it’s in the SUB, it means I don’t have to go off-campus when I want to stock up on things -- and if I’m in a hurry, I can just pop in for a banana or a wrap between classes,” he says. “But mostly I come here because I believe in eating organic foods -- I think it just tastes better, and I want to know that I’m not eating pesticides or anything.”

While the co-op’s motto is “people- and planet-friendly foods,” it could easily also be “act locally, think globally,” says Cossever. “Because 90 per cent of the energy that goes into industrial food production is from environmentally harmful fossil fuels -- much of it from transportation -- we are constantly looking for organic suppliers closer to home.”

“We purchase items that can’t be produced locally - bananas, chocolate, coffee and teas - through fair trade networks, which work with growers that protect human rights, environmental standards and pay better than the often exploitative commodity markets,” says Cossever.

In addition to the co-op’s commitment to social issues around the globe, it has also partnered with social enterprises closer to home. Through the federal Katimavik program, young Quebecois aged 17 to 21 come to work at Sprouts for three-month terms to gain English-speaking work experience in a socially responsible work environment. The store also purchases all its soups, wraps, breads, and baked goods from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Studio Café, which offers at-risk youth and adults training as chefs.

Sprouts offers information on fair trade, eating local and other food-related issues through a series of outreach initiatives, including a Sprouts cookbook, a lending library, e-mail newsletters, cooking demonstrations at student residences and other special events. The co-op recently arranged for Guatemalan coffee farmers to come to UBC to speak first-hand on how fair trade networks ameliorate their livelihoods. As part of March’s Ethical Consumption Week, Sprouts presented “The Future of Food,” a film by Deborah Coons Garcia (widow of musician Jerry Garcia) on genetically modified food at the UBC Norm Theatre.

Before moving into its current location, the co-op’s membership consisted of less than 100 students operating out of a portable behind the Faculty of Land and Food Systems’ MacMillan building. But when the group launched a weekly open-air market in the SUB, membership swelled to 400. On the basis of these numbers, the AMS offered the co-op a permanent location.

In addition to the exposure that comes with being located in the campus’ busiest building, Cossever cites the efforts of researchers such as Bill Rees and Alejandros Rojas and the operational initiatives of the Campus Sustainability Office for Sprouts’ growth. “Because of the work being done on sustainability, students, staff, and faculty have really embraced the store when they find out about it,” says Cossever.

A large part of Sprouts’ success is due to its seven-person executive’s ability to complement the store’s revenues with addition sources of income including, from UBC’s AMS, a $20,000 donation of in-kind renovations and a $3,000 Innovative Project Fund grant. The student government continues to offer its space rent-free in recognition of the co-op’s club status. In 2004, then AMS Vice President Academic Lyle McMahon, who spearheaded the AMS Ethical and Sustainable Purchasing Policy, donated $2,000 of his salary to the store’s operation.

Cossever says that this financial support allows the co-op to keep prices as low as possible, which is another reason for Sprout’s continued growth in membership.

“Because organic farmers don’t have the economics of scale of conventional food producers, the biggest argument against eating organically is that it is more expensive than non-organic foods,” says Cossever. “We feel that students should be able to afford to buy fair trade and organic foods - and because of our not-for-profit model, we can sell these foods for less than you will find anywhere else.”

Sprouts’ ecological and social efforts are attracting international attention. The U.S. Kellogg Foundation, established in 1930 by cereal pioneer W.K. Kellogg to promote sustainable food systems, has lauded the store and invited then co-op president Alice Miro to attend its 2005 policy conference. Last year, Canada’s Sierra Youth Coalition featured Sprouts as part of its National Sustainable Campus Conference, and later this year, the store will be profiled in a magazine published by The Food Project, a Boston-based non-governmental organization.

Sprouts is open Mon-Fri, 9:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. from September to the end of classes in April.

For more information visit, www.ams.ubc.ca/clubs/nfc.

Want to Make a Difference? Have a Brownie

Sprouts’ huge organic brownies incorporate all the facets of sustainability - ecological, economic, and social. Available for $1.75, they are made from scratch by at-risk youth and adults at Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Cook Studio Café using fair trade cocoa and cane sugar, free range eggs, and local dairy and milled flour. UBC Food Co-op president Elana Cossever calls the brownie the store’s “little sustainability mascot.”

“It’s still super rich, but I think we’ve made it as ‘guilt-free’ as a chocolate brownie is going to get.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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