Herbert the shopping cart parked along an exterior wall mural.

SFU Student-Community Engagement Competition

Herbert's story: how one shopping cart made a difference

October 29, 2018

In 2015 two “two-footers” reimagined how a shopping cart might make a meaningful difference to the residents of Surrey Centre. Kate Elliot and Tammas Grogan won the 2015 Student-Community Engagement Competition for their project, Gro-Carts. And for shopping carts like Herbert, it was a destiny-changing project.

In the fall of 2015, I lost my job. I was replaced. In the human world, this would have been devastating enough. But for me it was about to become tragic: instead of being set free to find another job, the plan for me was destruction. I was to be melted down.

You see, I am a grocery cart: my bosses owned me. And they decided that I was too small – they wanted their customers to buy more, so I was being replaced by a bigger cart. My fellow grocery carts and I were locked up in a cramped warehouse to await our hot and horrible fate.

Herbert parked at a bus stop, dreaming of what it would be like to take transit.

In the darkness of that warehouse, we mourned the loss of our shared dreams of freely roaming streets, of visiting public parks, and of gazing at public art. Though we had heard they existed, we had never lived the life of free-range carts. My dream was to take public transit – to be a wheeled creature inside another wheeled creature.

But some of us dreamed of further service – that our meagre existence might provide some small and meaningful benefit to the world. None of this had been a part of our reality, and we were coming to grips with the realization that it never would.

I can’t remember all the details because I was so deep in my mourning, but I found myself being wheeled away from my demise. I convinced myself I was dreaming until I felt sunshine on my bars and I could feel the concrete sidewalk under my wheels, my left back wheel trembling a bit on the rough surface like it always did. Two humans, it seemed, had rescued me. As I woke up to my sudden luck, I began to overhear the story: these humans had somehow convinced my owners that I had too much potential to waste, and that I could better serve the planet as a steward of fresh food rather than as a lump of cooling melted metal.

I admit I was surprised that humans could even think this way – my experience with them had mostly involved some pushing around, occasional collisions and assorted expletives – normally, they’re so mindlessly preoccupied with inspecting things, reading packaging or talking about prices. But here I was being rescued. These humans believed my true potential lay not in transporting people’s plastic-wrapped vegetables from store to car, but rather in rolling a mobile vegetable garden to someone’s balcony, someone’s rooftop, someone’s patio.

Twenty-four other grocery carts and I were lined with straw and hay, filled with soil and planted with seeds. We rolled home with people who had no access to land to grow their own food. Today, when some of us stroll around our neighbourhoods with our two-footed companions, we are carefully pushed. Human hands care for the gardens inside us. Human fingers gently probe the dirt, searching for radishes, carrots, onions, beets. Human eyes admire our foliage, gaze at the butterflies that flit from nasturtium to lemon verbena. And sometimes human voices sing softly or read us favourite stories. Not only have I never felt so useful and meaningful before – I have never felt so loved.

Art-the-Cart arrives at King George station after riding the SkyTrain.

Our newest member, Art-the-Cart, was planted in June 2018 in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery during 100in1 Day. Art achieved what no other Gro-Cart had ever attempted: he rolled onto a SkyTrain and rode all the way to Surrey!

My second life is proof that a little imagination can make a small but significant difference in the world. That if food can be grown in a grocery cart, it can be grown anywhere, and that in a world full of conflict and difficult choices, footed and wheeled creatures can harmoniously “walk and roll” with mutual, co-created intention.

We are consistently amazed by the longevity and growth of the awesome ideas that come through this competition. As Herbert says: “a little imagination can make a small but significant difference”. You can keep up with Herbert on Twitter.


Hey, students  – What would you  do with $3,000?

Up to $30,000* is available to fund SFU students who want to work with community partners to create meaningful impact. Register today – all you need is your name and a brief description of your idea.