So, I’ve always had this strong desire to improve social justice. To right the wrongs around me. I tell myself that if I see something that’s not fair, then stand up and fight for it; fight for what’s right. That has always been my main motivator and the reason why I decided to start my social enterprise.
Not realizing it at the time, my childhood growing up on a farm, and my own struggles, are what led me to where I am today. My experiences as a kid are what helped me understand how important food is in our lives.
Food is medicine, it’s life. Don’t you agree? But, we treat it like a commodity and then wonder why so many people get sick.
That’s why I decided to find a way to increase food access in as many communities as possible. But I also wanted to find a sustainable way to do that. And that’s the reason I chose to become a social entrepreneur.
My Childhood on the Farm
I grew up on a farm in the quiet little town of Baker-Brook, New Brunswick, right on the border with Maine. My family’s farm is located alongside a meandering river in a beautiful valley. I spent my childhood exploring the woods around our farm and building camps.
Our farm grew mostly potatoes and beans, but we also had a huge garden full of all kinds of good stuff. My dad was old-school when it came to farming practices. He insisted on cutting the hay by hand and using a horse and a buggy instead of a tractor. He worked hard all day on our farm.
My mom, well she’s my rock. To me, she was Supermom (and she still is). She worked all day at the hospital and then came home to look after my brother and me. And looking after us was a full-time job in itself!
Life was pretty simple on the farm, and I loved it that way. So, it’s probably no surprise that I wanted to be a farmer when I grew up.
Coming to Terms With the Struggles and Challenges of My Childhood
But, my childhood wasn’t all carefree bliss.
I was terrible in school, barely passing, and always getting kicked out of school. Undiagnosed learning disabilities made it hard for me to conform, to fit in.
I didn’t see the world like most people. And that got me into trouble all the time. This would eventually lead me down a dark path in my teen years.
As a kid, I thought that I would never do anything good with my life because school was so hard for me.
But looking back now, I see that my childhood, both the good stuff and the bad stuff, is what made me the person I am today. And without those experiences and struggles, I might not have had a chance or a reason to ever become a social entrepreneur.
My Constant Inspiration: My Dad and His Desire to Help the Less Fortunate
My dad has a big heart, and he’s always been an inspiration to me. Hard-working, and with a well of knowledge, he’s been my go-to person for a lot of the challenges I faced.
He had this passion for simple homesteading, which fit well with his traditional farming ways. But, the biggest lesson my dad ever taught me: share the harvest.
No matter what, a plate for one is always enough for two.
My dad owned low-income rental housing units. Looking back, they were like makeshift halfway houses for people who were really struggling. Dad always had a fondness for misfits, for the vulnerable, and for people who don’t fit the mold.
He was always willing to help others. And he believed the world needed to be rich in diversity to cultivate a good society.
On the first of the month when it was time for us to collect the rent, my dad would always bring me along. But before that, it was my job to go into our garden and fill up some shopping bags with whatever was ripe.
As we collected the rent from each tenant, I would give them a bag of the fresh produce that I had picked earlier.
Our Tenants Eyes Lit up and I Didn’t Understand Why
I remember they were always so grateful. When we’d come around, they’d have the biggest smiles, and at the time I didn’t understand why. Growing up on a farm I never had to worry about food.
But, I didn’t realize at the time that a lot of the tenants were on social assistance. They were probably living on whatever was cheapest until we gave them fresh produce.
Our tenants couldn’t afford cars and lived in an area with no public transport. Cabs were unreliable and expensive. Not to mention, the closest grocery store was a 40-minute walk away.
So, imagine a single mom trying to get to the store with her kids, on foot. Now, imagine her trying to do the same, but in the winter…
Access to healthy food should not be this difficult.
My Own Experiences With Food Insecurity
I was a picky eater as a kid. But, growing up on a farm I could afford to be. It wasn’t until I was 16 and dumpster diving for my next meal that I understood how important food is.
We lived with an abundance of food on the farm…I didn’t realize how lucky we were.
At 16 I was trying to get my life back on track and finish high school. I was living by myself and I had no money and no car. I was experiencing food insecurity first-hand.
That’s when I finally understood what our tenants were going through. Until that point, I never realized how isolated they were. And most of them were dealing with generational poverty. So, it was pretty much impossible for them to get healthy food.
And as a teen, there I was facing my own food access problems. I never really got it until I found myself living through it.
Imagine, if only more people lived through that experience, even for a week. I think that they’d understand the challenges of food insecurity, and would be more empathetic too.
Thinking back to our tenants’ situations, I realize now that they were living in a food desert.1 When I see whole families struggling to make ends meet, who can’t feed themselves properly, that is not acceptable to me. It made me realize how improving food access could change lives for the better.
My Social Enterprise: A Farmers’ Market on Wheels
Fast forward to 2014 when I had my own design agency. By then I had my life back together and I was doing good for myself. But for me, something was missing. I was still looking for a higher purpose in my life.
That’s when destiny stepped in and I met a guy named Mathieu at a local networking event. I was so impressed by his guts to drop everything to follow his passion: starting a farm. There was something about him, and I just knew that I needed to work with him.
My heart and soul are with farmers and with local food. We both wanted to find a way to encourage local farmers and get people to discover their beautiful food. Mathieu’s farm was too far away for most people. And the local farmers’ market had a long waitlist of vendors wanting to get in.
So we came up with the idea of having a mobile farmers’ market instead. But our challenge was making local food more accessible because it is so expensive (which is a tragedy). We wanted to find a way to balance both our revenue and our impact.
Having a mobile market isn’t a new idea, but using it for the wellbeing of underserved communities was. We thought: what better reason to operate a mobile market as a social enterprise model?
The Farmers’ Truck: Overcoming Obstacles to Improve Local Food Access
We started looking for communities where we could get sales to grow our revenue. And then we’d use that to offset the costs of making healthy food more accessible in food deserts.
As we were mapping out our planned stops, we realized that there were a lot of areas with low food access all around us. But our drive and our passion made us ready for the challenge.
With a $25,000 loan, we bought a truck and retrofitted it all ourselves. And so The Farmers’ Truck was launched on June 10th, 2015.
Even though the local food and products that we sold were more expensive, we did manage to sell a lot of them. But we did run into our fair share of roadblocks.
One city didn’t know how to categorize us. They tried to label us as a food truck. But we told them that we were more of a retail truck that sells produce. On other occasions, we were fined because another city didn’t even want us within their city limits.
It’s hard being the new kid on the block. But that didn’t stop us from making it work, from wanting to do good in our community.
Food Access: My Motivation for Becoming a Social Entrepreneur
That first year we ran our mobile farmers’ market, I saw how much people loved the whole concept. It’s a fun, happy, and inclusive environment. And people get to discover new fruits and veggies too.
I knew we were on to something good. I think it was a combination of our truck design, our brand, and the way we operated. And I thought to myself: we should have more of these and in more communities.
There’s always been a need for increased food access, and I think there always will be. I believe that we all should have more fruits and veggies available to us. Collectively, we need to rethink our food systems from the ground up.
So many people end up chronically ill and we wonder why. The reality is that people living in perpetual poverty are forced to make choices between food and bills. It’s a cycle that’s hard to get out of. And unfortunately, unhealthy processed food is cheaper.
Most people know how to cook. That’s not the problem. It’s all of the other factors around poverty, policies, and food access. That’s why people make these tough choices.
For me, this is a fight worth fighting; and I know that it’s an endless fight too. There’s always going to be room for improvement. Plus, it’s a worthy fight that’ll benefit everyone. That’s my motivation right there.
Social Enterprises Let You Do Good and Be Good
When we treat food as a commodity and not a basic right, we do very little to improve equal access to healthy foods. That’s the reason I wanted to start a social enterprise: to bring fresh, accessible food to every community.
A lot of social issues aren’t getting fixed because there’s no money to be made in doing so. But social enterprise business models are creating a fundamental shift away from this way of thinking.
They’re proving that it is possible to bring about change in a sustainable, long-term way. You can do good and be good all at the same time.
Most non-profits struggle with having to continually raise money. Yet lobbying for policy and institutional change is just as hard. Social enterprises are different.
A social enterprise starts with the social problem itself and then designs a business around that. In this way, the business generates income to support itself and can keep supporting its cause, its reason for being in the first place.
Whatever your passion or your reasons for wanting to start your own social enterprise, just know that it is all possible. Being a social entrepreneur keeps you humble, and focused. It gives you a reason to wake up every day and fight for what you believe in.
Check out our YouTube video all about social enterprises. Or contact me (Fred) directly if you’re looking for advice on starting your own social enterprise.