Their new free soup and smile program makes sure no one goes hungry

By Karen Kornelsen, Business Support Advisor for the Slocan Valley and Owner of Peak to Moon Creative 

As supply chains rattle the province, the need for locally-sourced products and locally-grown food has never been greater. Thankfully, in the Slocan Valley, there is a group of driven and caring people who are passionate about food access, food security and ensuring those who have barriers to healthy, nutrient-dense, local and organic food – get what they need. 

Introducing Picnic, the new social enterprise and community hub by the incredible folks at Kootenay Food and West Kootenay Permaculture Coop (WKPCoop). This beautiful all-season outdoor cafe, located in Winlaw on unceded Sinixt Territory, is re-inventing what it means to give back.

Years ago, Kootenay Food identified the need for a social enterprise revenue stream to support the visions of their organization, because going from one grant cycle to the next was not sustainable. They started producing value-processed food products from excess food from local farms and properties. The food donated to them was harvested or collected, and turned into shelf-stable products like jam or pickles. They sold these products at fundraisers in order to one day make Picnic a reality. They went from being hyper-mobile, hauling gear and volunteers from community centre to school to community centre, to having a home base for the first time ever. For Shauna Fidler and Damon Chouinard, founding board members of WKPCoop and the masterminds behind Kootenay Food, it’s remarkable and a dream come true.

Kootenay Food also provides food to other service organizations that work directly with populations who are considered vulnerable, under-housed or at-risk. They share food with local food banks, Indigienous groups like the Autonomous Sinixt, Four Nations Coalition of Indigenous Medicine and the West Kootenay Metis Society. 

“When COVID hit, we had to pivot and figure out what it would all look like,” said Chouinard. “We went from having a very strong volunteer model to having to find ways to hire people. A lot of our income dried up suddenly and so we naturally turned our focus to food access; making sure anyone who had barriers to healthy, nutrient-dense, local and organic food could have ways of connecting to it. During COVID, we also took on a delivery program of sorts where we could take a gift bundle filled with jams, soups, kale chips and granola, and bring it to someone in need. Or if someone needed medications picked up in town, we’d pull it all together. From there, the next step was Picnic.”

Picnic is thrilled to explore the food access side of Kootenay Food from their cafe, having just launched their new free soup and smile program. Anyone can come in for a free cup of soup on the days they are open, or you can pay $5 for a cup of soup, which is essentially buying a cup of soup for someone in need. The program will run through the winter into the summer of 2022.

It’s not the first time Picnic has stepped up to fulfill a need in their community. They opened the last week of June 2021 just as fires were starting across the province, including the Trozzo Creek fire, in their literal backyard. Winlaw soon had dozens of families on evacuation order and alert.

“When the fires hit, we basically just shut down the model of having a café and started feeding the community for free,” said Fidler. “There were so many displaced people; some people who left their house with nothing but the clothes on their back. There were families who came here every single day and we made sure we always had something to offer them. We also sent food up the mountain to the firefighters as well. As a social-enterprise café we can adapt and meet the needs of the community in the moment.”  

Picnic is not just about reducing barriers to food for those who need it, they’re all about offering organic, Kootenay Food-centric, high quality and seasonal food at a fair price. For instance, they don’t have avocado on the menu since it’s not a local product. They also offer a few vegan and gluten-free options which they hope to produce more of.

“We’ve had a pretty incredible response from the community,” said Fidler. “People are pretty elated that they can come here for an amazing cup of coffee (from our master barista Giselle), and get high-quality organic food. We’re using the peak harvest of the season and Ananda, our chef, is super skillful in value processing…making hot sauce from local peppers, house-made pickles, ferments, kimchi and jams. Almost everything is made from scratch, in-house. It’s pretty amazing.”

They’re also looking for their community to stock their pantries with Picnic’s shelf-stable, local and organic preserves. They have an incredible line-up, from cardamom-ginger peach jam and candied jalapenos to pickled beets and classic dill pickles.

“The stresses to our supply chains over the past couple years have opened up the eyes of everyone when it comes to food and supplies,” said Chouinard. “A social enterprise and café like Picnic and the model we want to explore is fast becoming more relevant than ever. We’re looking at this café and kitchen as being a place where bigger questions can be addressed concerning food security over the coming years. For several years, we’ve been a part of the greater discussions around food hubs in the region. Often these talks have consisted of a community audit. From these we’ve seen that our community has unique food security needs. We’re here to address those needs and push those initiatives further.  

Picnic now employs six local employees and they’re in the process of winterizing their space at the Spicer Centre behind Rambling Rose and Spinning Fables. They have a beautiful tent, propane heaters and will be making more improvements over the coming weeks to keep people warm and fed.

Check out the Kootenay Food Pop-Up Shops, during Slocan Valley Cheer, happening on December 4, 11 and 18, 2021. You’ll have the chance to stock up on pickles, jam, sauces and more. Your purchases will help feed your community and support this unique social enterprise. Come for amazing coffee, delicious local organic food, and live music by Buddhagrass Unfiltered!  Enjoy everything in their outdoor fireside marquee tent, and don’t forget to get or donate a free cup of soup while you’re there.