Lee Fuge of FoodRoots

Photo of Lee Fuge by Sherri Kostian

Nowadays it seems many people know about food issues such as sustainability and security. Yet we’re still unaware of those who’ve been blazing the West Coast food trail for the past decade and more. One of those trail-blazers is Lee Fuge. If you ask about her own accomplishments, she’ll demur; but ask her about FoodRoots, the organization she co-founded, and you’ll hear genuine passion.

FoodRoots, not for profit co-op distributor, is the brainchild of three parents: Fuge; Susan Tychie, co-founder of delivery system Share Organics; and Peninsula organic farmer Bryan Hughes. “We wanted local, open, democratic ownership, and we wanted the organization to be embedded in the community.”

While Fuge is now deeply rooted in that community, when she arrived in Victoria from Calgary 13 years ago, she found it an impenetrable job market, despite ample natural food retailing credentials. So she commuted instead to Vancouver to manage the East End Food Co-op. After a year and a half she’d had enough. “Twice a week shifting from the pace of Vancouver to the pace of Victoria, and having homes in two places; relationships and work in two places. It’s hard to establish yourself in either community if you’re only there part-time.”

Once she returned full-time to Victoria, she forged her own food security path through involvement with organizations like the Vic West Community Association, the International Women’s Catering Co-op and the Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable (CR-FAIR).  She, Tychie and Hughes often shared concerns about local food supply. “For years, lots of people had been saying the farmers should do this and the farmers should do that and the farmers should do the other thing; but basically the farmers were doing all that the farmers could do.” And then it struck them: they could create the link that brought small farmers and urban consumers together.

From its 2006 inception, FoodRoots broke new ground, documenting the pocket markets concept in a toolkit posted on the website that would allow urbanites to experience farmers’ markets in office buildings, shopping malls or rec centres. Fuge’s FoodRoots ambitions are adamantly inclusive: “sharing resources, information resources included, so that people in other jurisdictions can do similar things.”

Like any new idea, pocket markets have had ups and downs, and they’re still working out the kinks. Markets in rec centres suffered from lack of marketing budget, those in government offices from security and insurance restrictions that prevented the public from shopping there too. Others, like those at Mayfair Mall and Fernwood (in the Cornerstone Café) are thriving.

In other projects, FoodRoots has hosted “sustainable feasts,” sometimes partnering with groups like The Land Conservancy and Slow Food to provide delicious local educational banquets. In December, they’ll again be inviting people to buy, give or donate seasonal food boxes.

The latest enterprise is an online buyers’ group. “When the whole natural foods movement started in the ’60s, it started with buying groups, because people couldn’t find the products they wanted on the conventional store shelves. So I see what we’re doing as a sort of revival of the old co-op food movement, and re-localizing food.”

All the food on offer is either organic or naturally grown, and fairly traded where possible. Most, particularly in summer, is local. The orders are collected at the FoodRoots warehouse, which the group shares with LifeCycles and Share Organics—“a co-operative, a privately owned business and a food security-focused non-profit sharing space,” marvels Fuge, adding, “We think of ourselves as the food security hub for Victoria.”

FoodRoots’ annual farmers’ meeting embodies Fuge’s passion for transparency. “It’s a networking opportunity for the farmers, but more important, we tell the farmers what we bought from off-island so they can see the gaps and opportunities.” She aims to bring small producers up to the table as equals, offering them “the same kind of relationship that large growers have with their wholesalers.”

Fuge’s overall aims are modestly heroic. “We need to stay focused on educating people about the availability of local foods, encouraging them to buy local, explaining to them the multitude of reasons that buying local is good, not only for their health but economic and environmental health, and the health of the farmers and farmland.”

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