There’s a colourful poster that greets you at the entrance to Texada Elementary School. It reads: “The only limits in this life are the ones you make.” A few steps from the sign, down the corridor to the left, is a room embodying the possibilities laden in this mantra – the potential that a commercial kitchen can have for an individual, a family, and a community.
The Texada Food Hub is a project that had been percolating in the minds of local community members for decades before it opened in 2018 following a strategic investment by Texada Agriculture Group in partnership with Island Coastal Economic Trust. A dozen or so people from the Texada Agriculture Group, a non-profit society founded in 2012, envisioned an initiative that would facilitate a strong and diverse economy for the Island — historically based on the mining of limestone, iron, gold, and silver. Their goal, from the start, has been to bring the community together – local gardeners, farmers, cooks, bakers, and others – to support local food security and sovereignty. This includes creating and packaging marketable food products that can be sold on Texada, in the surrounding region, and globally.
“Texada has had a long history of gardening and farming,” says Tom Read, 70, project coordinator for the Texada Food Hub, referring to the Texada Farmers Institute started by Peter Anderson Staaf at the turn of the 20th century.
At that time, there were over 35 farms on the island that kept the miners fed and well-nourished throughout the year. By the time the First World War ended and killed off a majority of Texada’s farmers, followed by the Depression, the Island had to rethink its relationship to sustainable food and agriculture, including how to build and support a sustainable local food system that would ensure the growth of local small food and agricultural businesses and entrepreneurs.
“This kitchen came about as a result of people’s concerns for the future and seeing how vulnerable we are, alongside concerns for the global food systems,” explains Tom, who, with his late wife Linda Bruhn, ran their own commercial farm, Slow Farm, from 2011-2015. “Our food hub has a clear role within the food loop; and is a place where local food can be aggregated and turned around to sell locally.”
The “food loop” Tom refers to is a system that includes five steps toward building and sustaining a healthy and prosperous local farming and food sector: production, preservation, distribution, consumption, and resource recovery.
“One of the purposes of this kitchen has been to help people with their own food supply and to help build a strong local food system so we can all trade well together,” says Tom. “What you do, grow, and prepare can all be traded but it needs to be preserved. The food hub is the nucleus of that.”
The licensed kitchen itself is a small facility, at roughly 400 square feet, but it holds an impressive array of equipment and tools that can dehydrate, freeze, can, ferment, bake, or do just about any other food processing and producing task imaginable. The space set-up is also conducive to workshops – from Food Safe certification to textile and dye-making to fermentation – as well as accessible to young children and those with mobility challenges.
Over the years, a variety of instructors and entrepreneurs have used the Texada Food Hub – from the kitchen’s inaugural users, Texada elementary school students, through to pie and kimchi makers, small dog treat businesses, butchers, local gardeners and foragers, and, even more recently, a young couple who are preparing the final stages in certifying their dried organ meat capsules.
“The beautiful part about being here (at the Texada Food Hub) is that it’s integrated into the community,” says Breanne Percy, 35, who uses the hub to develop her micro-nutrient-rich grass-fed beef supplement with her partner Devin.
A nutritionist by trade, Breanne, and Devin, who owns another small business, were initially looking to create a commercial kitchen space on their own 25-acre property where they could develop the new product. But after being introduced to the kitchen, a few months after their arrival, Breanne knew this was the right fit to turn their idea into reality.
“I’m really passionate about micro-nutrient foods and the medicinal benefits of organ meats (like heart, kidney, and liver), and I wanted to make it easier for people to consume,” she explains. “When we moved here, and after Tom gave me a tour of the facility and explained his vision of food security, I knew this was a place where I could do the whole process in-house and be involved in the community – which has been amazing. If I had tried to build on our lot, I wouldn’t have the same feeling of connection.”
Three to four times a week, Breanne works a full day in the Hub. She’ll spend a session grinding the frozen organ meat, cooking it at a low temperature as a kill-step to destroy pathogens, blast-freezing it, freeze-drying it, followed by more grinding and sifting. The product is stored in Mylar bags with oxygen and moisture absorbents. The final stage is shipping the product to Vancouver for encapsulation.
There are very few companies in Canada doing what Breanne is doing and she is committed to following her product through to commercialization.
“If COVID taught me anything it’s the need to diversify,” she says. “As Health Canada supplement regulations are changing, I’m playing around with the product every day to see how I can incorporate it into foods as well. Devin and I have been finding creative ways to make the product easy to add to daily meals without tasting it.”
Breanne herself takes the product daily, as does her entire extended family.
“A couple days after my grandma, who’s 77, started taking it she told me that she’d done six laps of the track that morning, was repotting her plants, and had tons of energy,” Breanne says. “It’s been really fascinating to watch and to hear how beneficial it is.”
Getting the product on shelves, however, is still taking some time as Breanne is waiting on their final certification and licensing from Health Canada.
“It’s been quite challenging getting certification, but I’m resilient and persistent,” says Breanne. “I hope to inspire other small businesses on the island by showing what’s possible.”
In Tom’s view, Breanne’s work at the Hub is about more than creating a marketable food product. It’s also about safeguarding a community’s wellbeing.
“The nutritional aspect of Breanne and Devin’s work has the potential to improve community health,” says Tom who believes a key aspect of the kitchen is its community-minded focus. “Just look at what we’re consuming that’s causing all these health issues. Over time, this product should help lead to healthier communities.”
Healthier communities are also ones that are resilient and prepared for emergencies, like global pandemics. The food hub is a place that offers an educational component centred around food sovereignty.
“This kitchen allows control over your food supply and speaks to the quality of food and its nutritional value,” says Tom. “Choose more nutritious foods and you will have better health.”
While both Tom and Breanne are clear advocates for nutrient-rich foods, they are also quick to point out the freedom to use the kitchen for whatever food processing options you’d like – from cookies and pies to pig slaughtering, canning, and even preparing sashimi-grade sushi. “There are no rules on what you can or cannot make in the kitchen,” says Tom. “There’s no moral judgment here.”
Central to the kitchen’s mandate is having an open mind and the freedom to use the kitchen space and equipment in a variety of ways. It is also essential that the space is as accessible physically as it is financially. An individual lifetime membership fee to the hub is just $10 or $15 per couple. The rental fee is $5 for each four-hour block of time used in the kitchen.
“This is truly a community-building exercise, and we want as few barriers as possible to encourage as many people as possible to use the facility,” says Tom.
Community support behind the kitchen has been evident since the start. Every year, the Hub fundraises enough through its weekly coffee and lemonade stand at the seasonal Sunday farmers’ market to cover the $1600 for insurance and electrical costs. Private donations from individual community members have also allowed for the purchase of additional pieces of equipment, such as the blast freezer and freeze-dryer.
“What matters in a space like this is providing local jobs, making things in small batches, and having control over the entire food loop. You watch your food transform from start to finish,” says Tom.
While there’s been lots of usage of the kitchen over the years and the Hub is advertised in the local Texada Express Lines, on local notice boards, by word of mouth, and at the local farmers’ market, the challenge remains how to keep the space relevant for busy families as they raise kids, have full-time jobs and may struggle with finding the extra time for food preservation.
“Supporting local food systems is too important to depend on retired people, like myself. It’s a good thing that people half my age are coming in. We need next-generation champions.”
Someone like Breanne, who also acts as the kitchen’s scheduler for usage, may just be the person to lead the way. With her deep knowledge of nutrition, her passion for supporting local and job creation, combined with her strong connection to community, she’s created no limits for herself.
This may be just the recipe required to continue growing the Hub for decades to come.