However, it is everything Erin is doing "outside of the box" – her store – that is getting the attention of the locals.
Erin Chapelle is a retailer who is really thinking outside the proverbial box. When she wanted to create positive change in her community, she decided the best way to start was by opening a health food store. However, it is everything Erin is doing “outside of the box” – her store – that is getting the attention of the locals.Erin's shop – The Karma Marketplace – serves the community of Penetanguishene, ON. a town of about 10,000 on the shores of Georgian Bay, less than two hours north of Toronto. Using first a petite 200 sq. ft. store as her home base, before moving to a 1,000 sq. ft. space, Erin has been initiating projects and programs within Penetang, all based around creating a sustainable food supply for her community.
• She was the driving force in revitalizing Penetang's forgotten Ecology Garden, a place where people could rent a plot and grow their own food.
• She received permission to turn an abandoned private lot at a busy intersection into more food plots.
• She is growing vegetables in the gardens to supply the residents of a local women's shelter with fresh vegetables.
• She has opened a "pay-what-you-can" community kitchen beside her store.
• She was the major player behind the creation of a farmers' market on the Penetang town dock, just down the street from her store.
• She has spearheaded Hundred Mile Huronia, a program to ensure people get to know the foods and farmers in the region, and to encourage a focus on eating foods grown only in the region.
• She created a "food box" home delivery program through Karma.
• And last year, she ran for – and won – a seat on town council. People loved her platform: to build a sustainable local food system, inclusive community development, a more localized economy, and environmental stewardship.
All of these things did not happen randomly. Erin admits there has always been a "grand plan" and it had been in the works for years. "I had written a document while living in El Salvador called 'The Karma Project.' It was basically a synopsis of all my years of dreaming up an answer to world peace."
Erin travelled through Latin America for almost seven years, teaching in four different countries and even starting an arts festival in San Salvador. While there, she saw that food was a link between people, regardless if their country was at war, recovering from war, impoverished or experiencing untamed health care issues. "We all need it; we can all grow it; but there are some steps between making that a balanced common thread that need to be taken. Enter Karma. By having bricks and mortar – albeit only 200 sq. ft. – my dreams suddenly had a street-level face, and everything sort of spun out from there. That Karma Project document is my guide even now. It listed everything from a farmers market, to a community kitchen, to a handmade store. It is very valuable for me to go back to it and constantly review my progress and remind myself of my goals."
Erin has built Karma on three key building blocks. "Our basic philosophy is local, organic and fair trade, but I am committed to the local and fair trade above the organic. By that, I mean I am not bringing in something from North Carolina or India, just because it is organic. I am in business to support the people at my doorstep and those that are producing things abroad that have been created healthily and fairly. Organic is usually found within both the local and fair trade products, but it is an additional quality."
With the store in place, Erin was able to branch off and address the other parts of the Karma Project. The food plots at the Ecology Garden have brought many people together and back in touch with the earth. During growing season, you can regularly find members of the community – including Erin and her staff members Rona and Jenn – at the garden, tending their plots.
The Weekly Food Box program started in October 2009 and runs all year. "There has definitely been growth. We get new clients almost every week, but I still see room for expansion, as our numbers themselves hover around 20 boxes a week. For a small town, this is amazing, but for the amount of talking "local" I hear, I know there are more people out there that need to tap in. "
The food box program got off to a good start, Erin explained, and actually prompted the need for more room. "Within two weeks of starting the program, we needed a little more bricks and mortar at that point for anything to move forward food-wise. As our new space is actually two retail locations, I was aware that the doubling of my rent would be risky, but I also knew I now had room to grow. It has been one of the best things I have ever done for my dreams." Karma took over its new space in January 2010.
Hundred Mile Huronia is the local food initiative that Erin has created and championed. Eating locally has grown increasingly important over the last years in many areas of the province. "The Hundred Mile Huronia project aims to grow the movement from a social trend into a practical and sustainable local food system in our area," said Erin. "It is an idea that can unite people, projects, and places, by celebrating the very best of each of these."
After the move to the 1,000 sq. ft. space, Erin began to look at the community kitchen idea. "As we had all this new extra space, I began to review my grand master plan and thought that a community kitchen would be a logical next step. Its purpose is tri-fold: 1) to offer a certified kitchen space to any producers in the area that would like to market their products, but lack the actual space to do so (like an incubator kitchen;) 2) to act as a traditional community kitchen space that sees people cooking together and sharing resources (i.e. ingredients and then the meal/leftovers) and 3) to serve as a teaching space for food preservation, cooking classes, etc. From there, the kitchen evolved a little, and we began to toy with the idea of offering regular pay-what-you-can meals to the general public. This model is more inclusive than a traditional soup kitchen because it invites EVERYONE to the table, and not only those community members that can typically afford to eat out." The kitchen opened in mid-October.
Running for Penetanguishene town council was something Erin called the next logical step in her goal setting. "Since I was very little, my Mum remembers me saying that I would be Prime Minister. Council is a nice pre-cursor, no? So, because I had devoted so much time since 2007 to building community in Penetanguishene, I just thought that I would build on the momentum and attempt to work on a different level of development through politics. Now, I deal with things like sewage treatment plants and street signs, but it is all amazing learning and I am loving it." If Erin has a political goal long-term, she admits she would eventually love to work for the United Nations.
Erin's platform was to help foster a sustainable local food system, inclusive community development, a more localized economy, and environmental stewardship. "There are a lot of low and fixed income residents here, and it doesn't help anyone to pretend otherwise, so inclusion is a big deal to me. My sometimes skinny (like anorexic) profit margins are my method of keeping local and organic accessible, too."
All the things Erin was doing couldn't help but be noticed by her community; yet it was still a little shocking when – after just three years in business – she was awarded Business Woman of the Year for the greater Penetanguishene-Midland area. She edged out eight other candidates. She called winning the award surprising, given her more established and experienced competition, but added, "I feel that it speaks volumes about the direction in which our community is heading. It is so important to recognize the efforts of the incredible local talent in our area, which is Karma's goal. For the judges to see that and further support it, it is very, very special."
For a woman with such a detailed plan, Erin admits much of what she has done to this point has been created as she went along. "To be totally honest, in a lot of what I do I am learning as I go. I am the first to admit when embarking on a new venture if it is new ground for me. In those cases, I just try to embody honesty and fairness, and trust that those two things will be enough for me to make it through. I mean, running a market, store, or community garden were not things I am formally trained in, but listening, organizing people, and keeping a good paper trail are all things I have learned about along my path, so the surface level projects have worked out. I am not a pro at anything, but experimenting. Until now, that has been enough."
As far as future growth for Karma goes, Erin says "I am actually looking at co-operative status for the store over the next few years. I think it is getting ready to be truly owned by the community, and in the meantime, I will be a steward to its survival."
Regardless, Erin will always follow the document she wrote years ago, and continue to let it guide her path.
"Life is a sequence of events created by our choices and our actions. What we put out returns to us. If we put out good food, we will then eat it. If we buy products that didn't hurt the man or woman that created them, then we will reap the same social rewards. If we do not protect our farmland, we will starve. It all just makes total sense to me. So, the lifestyle is my benchmark. If I am on target, then I am pleased.
"If I fall off the path, at least I have a gauge to know how I can jump back on." •
Story: Bruce W. Cole Photos: Melissa Chapman
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