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Fair Trade Chat with The Organic Box

By Diana Le, Fair Trade Edmonton Member

For this post in our FairTrade series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heidi Ellis, the produce purchaser for The Organic Box! Prior to taking on this role, Heidi worked on a local farm in Alberta which gave her insight into small scale farming and its challenges. Further, she also previously completed an internship in Cuba on urban agriculture. Her passion for her work and expertise were immediately apparent and our conversation taught me a lot about how everyday food products get from farms to our tables. 

The Organic Box is a locally owned and operated business that offers a choice of organic produce boxes that customers can curate to their liking. If you don’t want a whole box of produce, you can take the DIY option to buy as much or as little as you would like each week. Many products are organic and in season, providing customers with the most sustainable produce choices possible. The Organic Box also sells hundreds of other grocery items including baked goods, pantry staples, locally sourced meat, eggs and dairy products. The Organic Box prioritizes working with local and independent farmers whenever possible which not only supports the local economy, but is also an important aspect of reducing the impact of food sourcing on the environment!

Right: Heidi Ellis with Yuri Zebroff from Honest Food Farm in Cawston BC

Read on for the highlights of my conversation with Heidi:

How does The Organic Box support Fair Trade?
I use a value set of 7 questions to help make product decisions that are in line with the values of ‘The Organic Box’:

1. Is it local? (Do we know the farmers on a first-name basis?)
2. Is it Organic? (If not, are we confident in the farmer’s growing practices)
3. Is it Canadian?
4. Does the product come from a family-owned farm/artisan?
5. Does the product come from a cooperative, Fair Trade or otherwise?
6. Does the product come from a values-aligned business?
7. Is the product ‘Natural’/GMO-Free AND no local/organic alternative exists?

Sourcing local is always our first choice since this way more money stays with the farmers and growers, but if for whatever reason this isn’t possible, we like to choose producers that align with our values. For example, ‘Discovery Organics’ is our main distributor and is 100% value aligned with our company. We love working with them because they have direct relationships with a lot of their producers which are mostly Fair Trade or Direct Trade.

On the grocery side, all of the chocolate and coffee that we offer is FairTrade.

Why do you think supporting Direct Trade and Fair Trade is important?
I think it’s really important to have a personal connection with food and to know where your products are coming from. For example, whenever possible, everything on our website is labelled with the farm that the product came from; we try to be as transparent as possible with our customers.

Supporting Fair Trade also means your money is making an impact. For instance, in the winter months, we get a lot of our produce from a great Fair Trade producer called ‘Covilli Organics’. Not only do they care about the health of the soil, but they also care about the health of their farm workers, which is really important to me since I have first-hand experience being a farmworker. I want to know that the producers I choose to support through The Organic Box are value aligned with us, even when I am not sourcing directly.

In 2018 ‘Covilli’ opened Nuchi Sansekan Health clinic which is fully funded with the Fair Trade premiums from the sale of their Fair Trade produce. This is important because a lot of their farmworkers come from very poor areas and travel to work for the harvest season. With the help of Nuchi Sansekan Clinic, farmworkers and their families have access to free healthcare and free dental on site. The clinic’s mission is to deliver comprehensive, culturally competent high-quality healthcare, with state-of-the-art equipment and compassionate practitioners to Covilli’s 700+ farmworkers, their families, and surrounding rural communities. This wouldn’t be possible without the Fair Trade Premiums they receive.

Are there any current issues you see happening with COVID-19 and Fairtrade?
The major challenge that I’ve seen is farm labour shortages. A lot of BC orchards rely on backpackers, seasonal agricultural workers and other travellers to harvest their crops. So this year with travel bans there were a lot of challenges with labor in general. Another challenge on top of that was finding farmworkers with the right skills (for example, farmworkers with experience picking good quality fruit so that it doesn’t require a second sorting).

How has The Organic Box changed with the pandemic?
Our business actually increased dramatically right when the pandemic started! There was a huge demand for grocery delivery in general which challenged us to scale quickly. We were very lucky to have had the physical space (we have a large warehouse) which allowed us to add to our staff without too many logistical challenges.

Any call to actions for the community?
Eat seasonally! It’s one of the best ways to support farmers. For example, there is an abundance of microgreens available right now. With many restaurants unable to offer their full range of services, our microgreen farmers have lost a valuable income stream. The Organic Box has been happy to step in to keep sales flowing for these farmers by adding microgreens to our curated boxes. Microgreens are also one of the only local greens available in the winter so they are both seasonally appropriate and packed with nutrients that we could all use in the dark winter months. Eating seasonally is also great for your budget. For example, strawberries aren’t in season right now so they are quite expensive but other vegetables that are in season are going to be more budget-friendly.

I would also challenge community members to try something new! There are some amazing, locally grown root crops such as sunchokes and celery root. Although they might not be as common, they are delicious and great for local farmers.

The Organic Box | Website | Instagram: @organicbox

Written by: Diana Le, Interview with: Heidi Ellis

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