By: Shan Qiao in Toronto, ON
At the age of 60, quitting a well-paying job to refinance her townhouse and start an entrepreneurial venture was the last thing Helen Poon’s friends thought she would do. But Helen did just that, setting out to build a healthy eating and living co-op so she could hire people who would be compensated by becoming healthy.
According to a 2017 study, over three quarters of Canadians aren't meeting the recommendations of Canada’s Food Guide for fruit and vegetable consumption, this results in an estimated economic burden to society of $4.39 billion annually. While dietary recommendations are made annually by the Canadian government, Poon recognized that a more hands-on approach would be necessary in order to affect more immediate change. The result, the Sprouts Co-Op in Toronto which focuses on specific neighborhoods across the GTA.
The thought of building a community-based healthy food and living co-op had been brewing in her mind for a couple of years, well before Poon decided to quit her job. “You are what you eat,” she continues. Hence the 2017 co-op which is steered by Poon but also receives support from a handful of people that have drawn influence from her.
[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“I want to create diverse and connected communities that recognize, practice, and advocate for equitable and sustainable food and health systems.” -Helen Poon[/quote]
Poon has never been one to shy from a challenge, so when she learned of the difference sugar alternatives like honey could make, she immersed herself in the subject. Canadians consume an average of 26 teaspoons of it every day, which amounts to 21% of their total daily caloric intake, playing a huge role in many diseases and conditions that have become more prevalent in recent years. Despite her lack of experience in the subject, she has been able to incorporate the ingredient in several recipes without sacrificing taste in any way.
“Helen was my supervisor at our previous organization we both worked for. At the end of last year, she told me she wanted to start a food and health co-op and hire people with disabilities,” says Daphne Au-Young who holds a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and joined Sprouts as a board member.
“I thought it’s a great initiative to provide affordable healthy food for the community and meaningful employment for individuals with disabilities. I admire Helen’s determination to start an organization at the age of 60. It shows that one is never too old to turn a dream into a reality,” Au-Young explains.
As an immigrant woman who came to this country after China’s 1989 political turmoil, Au-Young said her parents sacrificed their high paying jobs in Hong Kong for stability and freedom in Canada. The version of Sprouts’ “meaningful employment” makes her very happy to see clients moving past their traumas and living a normal life again.
A major influence within the Asian community, Poon is also a mentor to young men like Dave Tran. A descendant of Vietnamese immigrants and high school English teacher, Tran is currently the Vice-Chair of Sprouts and considers Poon an inspiration.
“There have been several important people in my life recently, demonstrating amazing leadership over the years, helping to build a greater diverse community for all. Helen is one of those people. She is quite an inspirational person who is a work horse; she always gives her 100% into anything she does and it can become infectious—in the best way,“ he explains.
Rui Ping Chen came to Canada 10 years ago as a young girl who also met Helen in her previous job. After learning of Sprouts, she was intrigued. “What kind of dream was big enough for her to leave a management position? She talked to me about Sprouts with so much passion and wisdom that I immediately understood why she did what she did.”
“I believe in what Sprouts is trying to promote ‘we are what we eat’,” says Ping, behind a makeshift reception table that collects people’s membership fees and registration forms at Sprouts’ first product launch event in Markham last November. That night, Sprouts successfully attracted more than three dozen people to join as members, after a year-long endeavor by Helen and the people influenced by her.
As the Sprouts Co-op continues its steady growth, Poon hopes to extend her reach to an even more diverse range of members. And while the Co-op's Toronto base has limited its current operations to the GTA, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for this ambitious startup.
Commentary by: Nick Fillmore in Toronto
News outlets in Canadian communities are falling like bowling pins.
At least 171 media organizations in 138 communities closed between 2008 and this January, according to the Local News Research Project, a project led by Ryerson School of Journalism. By comparison, only 51 new outlets opened.
The loss of media is so severe that a special report submitted to the House of Commons Heritage Committee was entitled: “Local news poverty in Canadian Communities.”
“Local news poverty, we argue,” is greatest in communities where residents have limited or no access to timely, verified news about local politics, education, health, economic and other key topics they need to navigate daily life, ” project co-ordinator April Lindgren writes in Policy Options.
Small communities such as Markdale, Ont. and Canmore, Alta. lost their local papers while cities Guelph, Ont. and Nanaimo, BC were among the largest centres to be hit.
Newspapers have been crucial for the development of Canada for more than three centuries. But ‘free’ news from for-profit papers is coming to an end.
Daily papers are failing because millions of dollars of advertising they used to have has either moved to the internet or has just disappeared. Because an ad that brings in $1,000 in a paper sells for about $100 on the internet, the newspaper corporations are so far unable to make a go of it in a digital world.
Corporate-owned news organizations around the world are trying to find a formula that will allow them to be profitable. However, they have made little progress in the dozen years since internet-based companies started stealing their ads and readers.
Hundreds of Canadian communities are now poorly served when it comes to local news by underfunded and under-staffed internet news sites, give-away newspapers and even bloggers.
Nonprofit media can be the solution
However, Canadian communities still should be able to have reliable newspapers. They need to explore creating community-controlled not-for-profit papers.
Nonprofit newspapers have financial advantages over for-profit papers. A commercial paper is expected to churn out at least 15 per cent profits or investors will take their money elsewhere. Business executives at corporations command salaries into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The manager of a nonprofit might earn $90,000. Ad sales staff at daily papers earn a large salary; not so at a nonprofit. A for-profit paper pays taxes. A nonprofit pays few taxes and can engage in fundraising activities.
Other factors: The internet is the future for many news organizations, but many people prefer to hold a newspaper in their hands. A printed publication tends to have more authority than an internet site. And, finally, advertisers like to see their ads in print.
There are no nonprofit daily newspapers in Canada, but hundreds of public interest organizations operate on a nonprofit basis.
The U.K. Guardian is the most prominent not-for-profit newspaper in the world. Last year, the award-winning but financially-strapped Philadelphia Inquirer switched to the not-for-profit model. Both organizations have large endowments.
I believe not-for-profit newspapers are highly desirable if a group can develop a break-even budget. I believe this is possible in Canada.
Set up a research group
If folks feel there’s a need for a newspaper in their community the first step would be to bring together 15 or 20 people who represent a cross-section of citizens. The group could conduct a survey to determine whether people in the community support the idea.
An important early task would be to have experts help you develop a project model to see if the concept is financially viable.
Warning: Don’t focus too much on journalistic content in the early stages. Instead, the most important thing to determine is whether the model you develop is financially viable.
Think about how groups and businesses in the community might contribute. Reach out to local journalists and media outlets to see if they would like to become involved in the project.
My recommendation is that groups create a nonprofit corporation. This way any surplus at the end of the year would go back into the project. A lawyer can create a nonprofit organization for about $700.
An important decision: One of the biggest questions concerns is how to distribute the paper. Traditional door-to-door delivery could be costly but, if the project can afford it, this is the best way to go.
However, groups could use a much cheaper distribution system. What I call the "mini-paper" would have small pages – 8 1/2 x 11 1/2 inches - just about the same size as Maclean's magazine – distributed to subscribers by e-mail.
Subscribers would print out the paper in the morning. The group would provide a simple binding system that readers would use to hold the pages. It might be best to limit the size of any one edition to 24 pages or less.
The huge advantage of the mini-paper is that it would not require newsprint and there would be no distribution expenses.
In case subscribers prefer to access the information on-line, all of the articles and other information published in the mini-paper would be posted behind a paywall on a website.
The big question for any group is figuring out where the money is going to come from.
I think it should be possible to run a nonprofit paper with about one-third of the revenue coming from advertising, one-third from subscribers and sustained donors, and one-third from fundraising.
Many sources of funding
Note: I have considerable experience as a fundraiser and I would be pleased to provide fundraising advice to any group free of charge. Here’s a summary of funding possibilities:
- Sustaining memberships where strong supporters pay an annual amount,
- As is the case with any newspaper, subscriber fees would be charged,
- Revenue from community advertisers would be an important source of funds,
- For organizations that know how to utilize it effectively, the Internet has a huge potential for fundraising,
- An investigative journalism fund,
- A fundraising committee could carry out a number of activities to raise money, including silent auctions, evening panel discussions, and hold breakfasts with guest speakers,
- Support from “A Guardian Angel”: Perhaps your community has one or more individuals who have amassed a lot of money. Shown a viable business plan, this person might be willing to provide a fairly substantial amount of funding to help cover costs over, say, a two-year period,
- Government support: With the pending collapse of for-profit journalism, we need to educate governments that public money needs to be made available to help support nonprofit media projects. A group should make presentations to municipal governments and the appropriate provincial government departments.
My strong advice to a group is to not launch a new paper until you have lined up funding for at least your first full year.
I know a number of Canadian nonprofit experts and journalists who would be pleased to help develop a project. Several knowledgeable U.S. organizations, such as Institute for Nonprofit News and the Poynter institute would provide advice.
The creation of even one sustainable, independent newspaper project anywhere in Canada would be a huge, unprecedented accomplishment. It could be the forerunner of other papers that would once again provide our communities with a reliable source of news and information.
Nick Fillmore was a CBC journalist and producer for more than 25 years, and is a founder of the Canadian Association of Journalists. He currently works as a Toronto freelance journalist who specializes in writing about media issues.This piece was republished under arrangement with J-Source.