Word of mouth has taken Full Bellies from just a few families to more than 1,000 members, but founder Amy Willis is ready to take the food-sharing service to the next level.

A new indoor food market in St-Isidore – which recently lost its only grocery store – is planned to open for February 1. The new location will also serve as the warehouse for Full Bellies, which currently delivers orders to about 150 families weekly in St-Isidore, Alexandria, Maxville, Vankleek Hill and Hawkesbury.

Based in Alexandria, Full Bellies began as an idea in August of 2020 for Willis and three other families to bulk purchase produce together, in order to save money and ensure fresh, healthy food was available during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the next few months, as members invited friends and neighbours to join, the group grew to more than a dozen families.

“We were working 11-15 families, sharing bulk food orders – all people we knew,” recalls Willis.

Today the Full Bellies Facebook group has more than 1,100 members, with Willis and a team of volunteers delivering boxes of fresh produce once or twice weekly to the five communities it serves. The most rapid growth has happened in the last six months, as more and more people find out about the service.

Three months ago, as Full Bellies was capped at delivering 45 baskets per week, Willis made a bold move, purchasing a retired school bus as a transport and pick up vehicle. That has allowed her to expand the service to more than 100 baskets per week, with a record delivery of 140 hit just last week. She also recently incorporated the company as a business, although the intent is not to make money, but to cover costs and make healthy food as inexpensive as possible for people.

“It’s more of a community and a group of people who are helping each other,” Willis explains. “All of the money goes back in.”

One of the most interesting things about Full Bellies, is that those who use it pay prices based upon their financial needs. The service uses different ‘wallet’ levels from which users can choose. Those whose wallets are usually full pay the Full Bellies regular price, while others have their baskets discounted depending upon their level of need. A video on the Facebook group explains the levels.

“Those whose budgets are kind of tight will pay a little bit less and those who are really tight will pay even less,” says Willis, noting there are also sponsored boxes.

Wallet thresholds are on the honors system and Willis says there have been no issues, due to the nature of the group and the generosity of the community.

“The way people are held accountable is not by me asking what their situation is, but rather that they see the generosity of everybody,” Willis says, noting many in need are reluctant to ask for help. “They don’t want to request it.”

“I tell them, you don’t have to apologize for requesting a lower price. That’s what this is about; getting good food into everybody’s bellies.”

Each week, Willis takes her bus to a wholesaler in Montreal to pick up the items she needs for the communities to which she is delivering. Although the service only distributes fresh produce, the volunteers at Full Bellies have stepped up to add dry good boxes to some orders. More dry goods are planned to be added in the new year.

But the main focus for the start of 2022 will be the new store in St-Isidore, which lost its only grocery store in early December. Full Bellies in St-Isidore will be open six days a week and will offer fresh produce and other basics. The location will also serve as the warehouse for the company.

Willis plans to have spaces for as many as 20 local vendors in her St-Isidore location, who will offer items such as dog treats, preserves, honey and other locally produced items.

A mother of eight children whom she home-schools, Willis says the motivation for setting up Full Bellies was the high cost of feeding such a large family. The initial group she set up was with friends who also have large families and home-school their children.

“We all have big families and it’s expensive to buy bags of apples and oranges from the store. When you’re on a budget and you have that many kids it’s apples or oranges for snacks and that’s it – there’s no more money for a variety of food.”

The high price of produce also discourages families from preparing healthy snacks for their children, Willis says.

“I have so many friends who buy chips for snacks, or little packaged cookies for kids, because they can’t afford fruit. That’s a big problem.”

More information on Full Bellies can be obtained by visiting the Facebook group, or by calling or texting Amy Willis at 613-601-9532.