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Low prices, high hopes

Shelley Wells is the executive director of Quest Food Exchange, a discount grocery store for those with low-income. The non-profit Quest Outreach Society, which operates two food stores in Vancouver, opened an outlet in Surrey last month.         - EVAN SEAL / THE LEADER
Shelley Wells is the executive director of Quest Food Exchange, a discount grocery store for those with low-income. The non-profit Quest Outreach Society, which operates two food stores in Vancouver, opened an outlet in Surrey last month.
— image credit: EVAN SEAL / THE LEADER

Mohamed Merhi arrived in Canada from Venezuela less than a month ago. He’s short on cash and spending his days looking for a job. For him, and about 500 other people who come in each day, Quest Food Exchange is a godsend.

It’s a place where people who are struggling to fill their plates can buy decent food at a discount.

“I see here in Canada, they take care of people,” said Merhi in a thick accent. “It’s very good what they do here. I really appreciate it.”

The new store in Whalley opened at the end of April, and in its third week, it served roughly 2,500 people. The store will start opening on Saturdays later this month.

Quest Food Exchange, run by the not-for-profit Quest Outreach Society, is like any small supermarket. It stocks and sells food. The difference? Quest only serves customers referred to them by social service agencies, and the food is a lot cheaper than anywhere else.

Most items are less than a third of the price they would be in a regular supermarket, from salmon to cereal to milk, to fruits and vegetables. A loaf of bread is 80 cents.

Surrey’s is the third Quest store in the Lower Mainland. Executive director Shelley Wells hopes to open four more across B.C. over the next five years.

To raise money for the expansion, the first Quest capital campaign has a goal of raising $5 million. The first $1 million, which helped open the Surrey store, came from the Vancity Million Dollar Award.

Quest takes groceries that would have been thrown out – cereal boxes that are slightly crushed, cans that are dented, or potatoes that are abnormally large – and makes them available to the less-fortunate.

“If we can get good food to the people who need it, it’s really a no-brainer,” said Wells, who came up with the idea more than 15 years ago.

Volunteering at a soup kitchen on Vancouver’s east side, Wells began asking supermarkets to pass along the food they were throwing out.

“I realized there wasn’t only enough food to supply our program, but the organizations around us too,” she said. From that knowledge, Quest was born.

Even with seven trucks picking up more than $1 million worth of food every week, and with three Quest stores going through 50 tons of food per day, Quest is still only recovering one per cent of all the food that could be available to them, Wells said. The rest ends up in landfills.

“On a daily basis, I’m amazed by the quality of the food, I’m amazed by the quantity of food,” said Wells. “It’s just mind-boggling to think we’re only taking the tip of the iceberg.”

The store, which employs three people, also offers volunteer opportunities.

For more information about Quest, visit www.questoutreach.org. The store is located at 13890 104 Ave.

cmacbride@surreyleader.com

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