Boxing Up Good Food with LUSH Valley

dozens of food boxes, filled with Comox Valley produce at the LUSH valley warehouse.
In 2023, LUSH Valley distributed 11,000 Good Food Boxes across the Comox Valley.
How a shared kitchen is growing success for Comox Valley Farmers and families.

On any given day, LUSH Valley is bustling with activity. Volunteers are busy packing hundreds of Good Food Boxes. In the commercial kitchen, volunteers stir large pots of soup, knead dough, and bake biscuits for the day’s Hot Meal Program. The kitchen also stays busy with food prep for the Healthy Student Meal program and various Community Kitchen workshops and catering events.

For more than 20 years, LUSH Valley has run healthy food programs and advocated for increased food security across the Comox Valley. They strive to support the economic development of farmers across the region, as well as helping the community receive equitable access to nourishing food.

With a focus on fresh fruit and produce, the contents of the Good Food Boxes change with each season. But they’re always chock full of local food, reaching 100% sourced from 30 Comox Valley farms in the height of growing season. Last year, they purchased more than $200,000 of fresh produce and eggs locally to distribute 11,000 food boxes throughout the valley.

Two LUSH Valley staff members pack a collection of Good Food Boxes with fresh green produce during the busy growing season.

Building a Commercial Kitchen

In 2023, LUSH Valley built a commercial kitchen in Courtenay’s Tin Town neighbourhood through an investment with Island Coastal Economic Trust. In the past, LUSH Valley accessed kitchens through community partners like the Filberg Heritage Lodge and Park and K’ómoks First Nation to sustain their growing Hot Meal program. They currently provide more than 400 weekly meals to members of the unhoused community, low-income seniors, K’ómoks First Nation, and students.

“We could keep the Hot Meal Program running,” says James McKerricher, Food Access Manager, LUSH Valley, “but we had always run our two programs in different places. Bringing both under the same roof really optimizes what we can offer.”

The new commercial kitchen also opens new avenues for social enterprise, community support and sustainability.

a chef prepares fresh cheese scones in a large commercial kitch.

“Having a commercial kitchen to cook meals is the first step,” says McKerricher, “and having a kitchen vertically integrated into a local food system, including a large walk-in cooler and warehouse, is our operational goal. By being vertically integrated, we are reducing food waste and leveraging our capacity. It’s making a big impact on our local food system and community.”

To supplement operational funding, LUSH Valley has been able to build a catering service. By catering special events, opening the kitchen for community workshops, and partnering with North Island College Continuing Education, LUSH can reinvest profits into their social programs and the kitchen itself. There are already plans to expand, beginning with a new ventilation system and industrial ovens.

Preparing food in a commercial kitchen, a woman stirs a large pot os steaming soup while a commercial refrigerator keeps the produce cool.

Empowering Local Farmers and Food Producers

It’s also empowering local producers to reimagine how they can grow their businesses.

“It makes my farm viable,” says Michelle Fillion, owner, Sweet Spread Farm. “I am not doing huge volume, so producing a variety of products helps.”

Fillion operates the small, 0.75-acre farm. Like many local farmers, she relies heavily on farmers market sales throughout the summer. While she did also produce 600 jars of homemade pickles, salsa, ketchup, and tomato sauce, she can only sell them at markets because they weren’t made in a commercial kitchen. By making these same products at the Lush Valley kitchen, which she plans to this year, those products could be sold at retail locations or to restaurants.

Fillion now believes the new kitchen space will positively impact her business.

“It’s really diversifying my products and my sales,“ says Fillion. “We used to farm more intensely, but it was all perishable produce. Creating value-added products feels more manageable and more sustainable.”

With the next growing season arriving soon, the first since the kitchen opened, other local farmers will soon be cultivating new goods from their annual harvests.

In 2023, LUSH Valley Food Action Society partnered with Island Coastal Economic Trust on its commercial kitchen project, which brought a shared food hub space to Courtenay and the Comox Valley. The Trust committed an investment of up to $50,000 towards LUSH Valley’s $205,000 total project budget. Read the news release for more information.