The Importance of Pivoting and Refocusing when Designing Solutions to Social Problems

Rachel is a Change Lab 2015 alumni and business major at SFU, concentrating in entrepreneurship and marketing. She was also the Director of Outgoing Exchange, Global Talent at AIESEC Simon Fraser University. With support from the SFU Student Social Innovation Fund, a collaboration between RADIUS and Embark that provides project funding up to $1000, Rachel and her team are launching a food accessibility project called Urban Oasis this fall, allowing her to follow her passion for design and social entrepreneurship. 
How can a city like Vancouver with so much rain be home to a desert? Well with respect to food, urban areas experiencing a scarcity of nutritious and affordable meals may be more common than you expect. Also known as food deserts (not to be confused with oh-so-delicious food desserts), these neighbourhoods have really gained my interest lately, prompting fellow SFU student Sebastian and I to work on launching a program to help fill gaps in our food system.
I met Sebastian, my project partner, in Change Lab fall 2015 (a course offered by the Beedie School of Business and the Faculty of Environment with support from RADIUS, Embark, and the SFU Sustainability Office). We were tasked with creating a social change project or venture focused on the False Creek Flats industrial area in Strathcona. We soon discovered the food needs of the area and began the groundwork for our Urban Oasis project.
The goal of Urban Oasis is to provide food that is healthy, convenient and affordable to areas of the city that need it. Of course designing a potential solution to a social issue is challenging, but finding a problem worth tackling can be tricky as well. Our original direction was to try to reduce food waste by selling or giving away food that is blemished or slightly past its best before date but still edible. However, as we talked to grocery stores, food trucks and food warehouses, we found that most businesses already have systems in place for reducing food waste, such as giving unwanted items to food banks or selling them at discount. So instead we decided to look into a problem parallel to that of food being wasted: food not being found.
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At this point in our project we first realized that to have a meaningful project we needed to be open to change and receptive to feedback at each stage, from problem identification to prototyping. Walking through the neighbourhood we came to realize the lack of grocery stores, restaurants and soup kitchens in the area, and also found that some of the people who most frequently visit the area face food insecurity and/or nutrient poor diets.
One frequent group of visitors are called binners, individuals who scour the city collecting refundable containers to supplement their income. This group is made up of low income and often marginalized individuals who bring their materials to the United We Can bottle depot on Industrial Avenue in Strathcona. I’d seen them carrying large bags of cans and bottles or pushing a shopping cart full of the glass and plastic containers. However, I was not aware of how many binners there are or that there was even a term to describe them.
We now had a target area and demographic. Bingo. Could we, by providing food, support these resourceful and entrepreneurial individuals who serve the city by helping divert countless cans and bottles from the landfill or incinerator? As we began to talk to binners and ask them about where and how they got their food and what aspects of their diet and food routine most needed improving, we began to appreciate the diversity of the binner community. This group is so diverse that it made us rethink our problem-solution fit.
As outsiders, Sebastian and I had much to learn about life as a binner. Some of them are homeless or don’t have access to a cooking space. Some binners collect containers as a full time job, while others would do it at the end of the month if their welfare cheques ran out. Some struggle with substance abuse. Many binners told us they get their meals from a mixture of sources including soup kitchens, community kitchens, the food bank and grocery stores. Another key insight our conversations revealed are the gum and dental issues some binners experience, which restrict their diet to soft foods. The binners also acknowledged the lack of places to get food in the area, since most food programs are concentrated downtown. This information has proven invaluable, helping us focus our prototypes on providing mandarin oranges since they are easy to eat, soft and healthy. Additionally, fresh produce is less commonly found at food banks, sites which mostly offer canned and dried foods (a great service to the community, but anyone can get tired of that!).
As we start interacting with the binners, we realized the power of language and posture. Being upfront, informal and honest about our intentions garnered the best conversations. Even so, a few binners were mistrustful of us or were not interested in stopping to talk, which is understandable considering the hard work that binning can require. Talking about the food you eat or what you wish you had can be touchy subjects for anybody, and engaging in these conversations also raises issues around dignity and power. It was important that we not make assumptions but rather be open to what they had to say; their shared stories were sometimes very personal.
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As I heard stories of previous careers, marriages, goals and aspirations, I found it important to ask open ended questions which allowed honest responses less swayed by how we phrased the question. When asking binners where they normally get their food, I sensed that apprehension about telling Sebastian and I that they used food banks or soup kitchens could possibly skew some answers. Yet there was also a risk in being too unstructured. For example, asking “what food items do you most need or want?” led to some responses like “I wish I had steak everyday” or “I don’t need your help.” These answers did not give us the insight we were looking for, but helped us realize that the notion of outsiders offering help could be sensitive. I started jotting down notes afterwards so that future conversations would flow better and feel less like an interview. Starting with a question usually worked best to gain a binner’s attention, but a very brief introduction saying why we wanted to talk and exchanging names also helped make the situation comfortable.
I think that society sometimes paints people who are underemployed or homeless, such as some of the binners, with a broad brush. However, by appreciating the nuances to their stories, I think people gain a more empathetic attitude towards binners. What I find most impactful in conversations with the binners is their sense of community, their willingness to help each other out, their organization in terms of how they divide collection routes in the city and their positive spirit in the face of challenges such as marginalization, harsh weather, and food insecurity.
Our vision with Urban Oasis is to provide food resources to binners in the current ‘food desert’ environment they travel to. By selling fresh fruits (and perhaps eventually soups and sandwiches) to cover costs, Urban Oasis can be a positive place for binners to spend their money as they visit the False Creek Flats food desert. I believe that by selling rather than giving out food we can provide something that is truly desired and change the power dynamic from one of helping to one based more on equal economic footing. We are ready for the challenges of finding and testing sources of food and methods of distribution. We look forward to working towards best suiting the needs of binners and other Vancouver residents who need a good bite to eat.
Find Urban Oasis on Facebook! For more information on how binners are organizing to improve their economic opportunities and reduce social stigma check out the Binner’s Project.