The Upcycle Kitchen is a volunteer-led initiative that takes food that would have otherwise gone to waste and is instead cooked to make frozen meals or baked to make fresh and frozen muffins for sale.
When we began the project in 2018 it had different outcomes in mind. At the time The SEED had a significant focus on creating opportunities for youth facing barriers to employment to have meaningful experiential learning and employment opportunities. Our intention was to take blemished but otherwise perfectly fine ingredients and create products that could be sold in stores at market prices and the proceeds from the sales would help cover the cost of our youth employment outcomes.
This original concept came out of a meeting I had with Dr. Kate Parizeau at the University of Guelph. Kate’s focus of study is on food waste, and she had the makings of an idea that involved social enterprise and upcycling, she invited me in to discuss and we brought our ideas into focus. From here The SEED would apply for grants and execute the idea and Kate would support the enterprise by supervising students who would bring a research-based lens to the work.
In September 2018 we were awarded a startup grant through Innovation Guelph that allowed us to hire an Upcycle Kitchen Coordinator whose role was to develop and taste test recipes that would ultimately become products we would produce and sell. While the Coordinator was researching and developing recipes, Kate guided a team of five graduate students from the Arrell Food Scholars program. These students wrote two papers that helped us better understand the potential and limitations of this initiative, which included a review of social enterprise and supportive employment models and a published paper that sought to understand the motivations behind volunteering in food insecurity and food upcycling projects (see links below). Alongside the efforts of the Coordinator and this research group, we also worked with two students supported by the University of Guelph’s Sandbox program who were guided through a 12 week business incubation framework to help develop the first Upcycle Kitchen products.
Safe to say there was a lot of development going on all at once! All this effort led to several products developed complete with labelling, sourced ingredients, and invitations sent out for our launch party… the launch party was scheduled for March 25th, 2020.
Well, that didn’t happen.
We postponed the event indefinitely and quickly adapted our intentions with the enterprise. We partnered with Hospitality Services at the University of Guelph and our Upcycle Kitchen Coordinator and Nutrition Programs Coordinator led teams of volunteers in two separate kitchens. Between April 2020 and March 2021 these three kitchen teams collectively produced over 80,000 frozen meals that were then delivered directly to the homes of community members most impacted by the Covid lockdowns, free of charge.
Coordinating the production of 80,000 frozen meals using primarily upcycled ingredients was an incredible accomplishment embedded within a monumental task of coordinating the delivery of nearly 19,000 nutritious food baskets that year via our Emergency Food Home Delivery program (EFHD). During this time we learned a lot about how valued those frozen meals were to participants. One participant shared:
I really appreciate that the kitchen tried really hard to accommodate my specific needs, and that they gave me variety of different meals since I have quite a few allergies and dietary restrictions. The meals were alternated so I didn’t get sick of them. I could really taste the quality in the meals, I loved them and they were a big help!Emergency Food Home Delivery Participant
And another added:
Frozen meals were very helpful in allowing me to have a nutritious meal when I was unable to make meals with my PSW.Emergency Food Home Delivery Participant
With how important frozen meals were to our EFHD participants we decided we would continue to produce them as we transitioned to running Groceries from The SEED, our sliding scale online grocery store. We would need to begin charging money for the meals as our emergency funding covering the cost of food had run out, and we sought to return the Upcycle Kitchen to its roots as a social enterprise. Rather than products sold in retail stores, the frozen meals would remain the key product we would produce. We would again seek to test whether we could cover our operating costs by selling the meals on a sliding scale, where items sold at retail would help offset the cost of selling products at our deepest discount. In 2022 we added our hugely popular line of Makeover Muffins.
What did we learn from testing the social enterprise model?
Similar to what we have learned with other enterprises we run, we have found that we are achieving great food access outcomes that involve the whole community in the solution. We have customers who are paying retail pricing for the food and this has helped us cover some operating costs like labels and additional ingredients that we can’t source from surplus. This has helped keep prices at our Deepest Discount down. Our Deepest Discount is set to the price The SEED pays for each item from suppliers. We have priced the frozen meals the same way, calculating the cost of staffing, ingredients, and materials into the product price. Over the last several months we have worked with our Upcycle Kitchen Leads to transition this initiative from one that has been staff-supported to one that is volunteer-led.
And this is where we are now!
Since it is now volunteer-led the cost of producing the meals has decreased and this is now reflected in the price of the meals in the store. Customers with our Deepest Discount will see the frozen meals are now $3.05 per meal (down from $6.00/meal) while customers paying retail will still see them priced at $8.00. This remains incredible value at retail and all proceeds will help cover material and ingredient costs.
We will be producing a new meal each month so keep your eyes on the store!
We are incredibly grateful to our dedicated volunteer crew for everything they bring to the Upcycle KItchen. We are also grateful to each of the staff that have contributed incredible passion, energy, and expertise to the development of this enterprise since its inception – we wouldn’t be at this stage without you.
If you are interested in reading any of the articles mentioned above don’t hesitate to reach out.
Interested in helping to keep the kitchen going? Follow one of the links below to be part of a connected community where everyone has access to good food.