How food banks rescued more than 200,000 pounds of produce to feed their communities

According to recent studies, 58% of food produced in Canada is lost or wasted each year. With research showing that one in eight Canadians, or 13 percent, said they accessed food or meals from a community organization in the last 12 months, food banks knew that so much unused food could be rescued to support communities across Canada, with the added bonus of reducing climate change.

In 2019, with funding from the Trillium Foundation, a partnership between the Unemployed Help Centre of Windsor, Feed Ontario, and Food Banks Canada was developed to evaluate the benefits of rescuing surplus produce from the rich farmland of Essex County.

The project is called Farm to Food Program. The UHC of Windsor and Feed Ontario worked with local farmers to donate quality surplus food to Windsor locations. This food would have otherwise become food waste and ended up in landfills. With the state-of-the-art kitchen facilities at the UHC, the raw products that were donated could be transformed into cost-effective meals, and with Feed Ontario’s extensive distribution network, the meals could be transported to those who need it most. The goal of this project is to enable access to food, as well as helping farmers avoid food waste.

Food Banks Canada’s role was to oversee the evaluation and explore the potential to scale it across more regions.

Existing relationships with local farmers, businesses and food growers were essential to ensure that the program went well.

“We worked with local farmers and businesses, who were more than happy to donate their surplus produce. Essentially, the raw products came from three different sources: Farmers, suppliers and businesses, and local gleaning organizations”, says Carolyn Stewart-Stockwell, Executive Director from Feed Ontario, and “collaboration with all the different partners was really key to the success of this program. We were lucky to have them in our corner.”

And it was going better than expected.

“During the first year, we were able to prepare and distribute over 437,000 meals”, says June Muir, CEO at the UHC Hub of opportunities, formerly known as the Unemployed Help Centre of Windsor Inc.

However, the pandemic took a toll on the program.

With food demands increasing across the province, and lockdowns taking place across the country, food banks started to lose their volunteers. This meant that staff had to put in long hours to ensure that the meals were being prepped and distributed in time. “Windsor has been one of the hardest hit cities in the province by COVID, and many people lost their jobs. Outside our doors, long lineups were starting to form. We needed to make sure that the meals were also being distributed to our clients”, June continues.

Infrastructure was also an issue.

“Because of COVID and the increase in demand, our refrigerated trucks were being used to serve other communities which became a logistics challenge. We were still able to get it done but it was very challenging”, says June.

The pandemic also reduced local food production.

June continued, “Some of the greenhouse growers had covid outbreaks and had to close their doors. There was also a lack of migrant workers because of the travel restrictions. It was just awful but we managed to get through it and we still recovered enough produce to make our program targets”.

However, the community really showed their true colours and came together to help each other

“Once the state of emergency was declared, the mayor stepped up and worked with us and redeployed the city of Windsor workers to help us create hampers and top up the hampers when we received food from Feed Ontario and Food Banks Canada. It was good to see the community coming together “says June.

Especially the staff

“Many volunteers and staff were unable to come and help us because of the lockdowns. But everyone worked really hard. Because of their dedication, we were able to get the soup we made out the door. Over 1 million 7 ounce soup meals were prepared and frozen. We would not have been able to accomplish this milestone without their support”, says Mike Turnbull, Food Rescue Program Manager at the UHC., who has been at the heart of it all in Windsor.

The program had its challenges, but it was an fulfilling experience.

The UHC Hub of opportunities in Windsor has a state-of-the-art kitchen where the community can come together to learn, socialize, and help a neighbor in need, and the farm to food program enhanced this. “Our kids had so much fun being creative and mixing all different kinds of herbs and veggies to create different varieties of soups, and our clients enjoyed the different varieties they were able to get”, continues Mike.

There were also many lessons learned along the way. For example, it is important to have the right equipment in place.

“We learned a lot, and we want to share our experience so that those who want to recreate this program can learn as well. We learned that it is important to make sure we have the right equipment. We could use more refrigerated trucks. Our existing one was being utilized to help during COVID since our demands increased. It would have been helpful if we had another one”, continued Mike.

It is also important to have the right people in place.

Mike explains the process of preparing the soup. “As the products come into the kitchen, they are sorted, washed and prepped to go into large 80 gallons soup kettles. Along the way, we needed to make sure that all of steps involved were following food safety handling guidelines. Red seal chefs are critical to ensure that all food safety handling rules were being followed”.

They also learned that boxes can be expensive.

“We did not anticipate the cost of boxes and they are quite expensive! Luckily there were lots of donations but unfortunately the boxes ran out.  So, we repurposed the boxes that the produce came in . We also found out that it is better to stick to small amounts. We Started with a 4 litre bag but the distribution was not running well. The feedback we got was that the 4 L bag was too big, so we changed to 1 and ½ L bags and families could choose how many bags they wanted. This worked much better”.

The most crucial learning was the importance of collaboration, and how it was key to the success of this program. After the soup was prepared, it was distributed across the province. But none of this would have been possible without Feed Ontario.

“Feed Ontario was able to get the food to 45 municipalities in Ontario, including Thunder Bay. The city of Windsor was able to redeploy workers distributing soup at the drive-thru food hub. We are so lucky to have been able to work together and help those who need it most”, says June.

And the proof is in the pudding. In collaboration with other partners, the food banks were able to rescue over 241,300 lbs of surplus produce and distributed over 1 million meals across Ontario!

The program has also had a real impact on the environment, for farmers and agri-businesses and for food-insecure Ontarians.

Food Banks Canada, with an eye on the potential of scaling up the program or otherwise replicating it nationwide, commissioned an independent, external evaluation of the program through the support of the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

The evaluation, carried out by Cathexis Consulting, Inc., found that at the halfway (12 month) point of this one initiative alone, an estimated 41,000 kgs of greenhouse gas emissions were avoided. That is equivalent to the emissions from driving a typical car 162,500 km. In addition to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the program also prevented 32.4 million litres of water wastage, which is equivalent to annual average water usage of 400 Canadians. The results of the full, two-year evaluation will be available in the Fall of 2021.

The evaluation also captured feedback from the implementation of the program that went beyond the environmental impacts. When asked about the soups, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Clients enjoyed the variety of meals, and most importantly how healthy and tasty they were. It was also noted that the meals were culturally appropriate.

The farmers and agri-businesses also benefitted. They were saving money, but also saving the environment and contributing to the community, as well as helping those in need. Win-Win-Win.

Lastly, after a year of doing the program, the evaluation concluded that there was a huge potential to expand this program to other regions and provinces, because even though they were able to rescue over 241,300 lbs of surplus produce, there was still an enormous amount of produce going to waste. The hope is that other provinces and regions can collaborate, as this collaboration was key to the success of the program.

For food banks across Canada, it is important to ensure that those in need have an abundant amount of fresh food and thankfully, with initiatives such as these, they are able to do just that.