By Tiffany Vitti in Toronto
Reducing waste is something that should be more on the minds of the urban population. According to David Suzuki (who knows a thing or two about waste), in a year a Toronto single-family household will discard about 275 kilos of food. With that amount going to waste in homes alone, how much wastage is happening in larger organisations?
To find out, we spoke to Oosolya Soos of Second Harvest - a Toronto organisation that redistributes surplus food back into the community.
How did Second Harvest get started?
We started in 1985 by two women Ina Andre and Joan Clayton. They were just two women responding to the Ethiopian Famine of the time and looked inwards to Toronto. They thought what could we be doing to help people right here. They just started picking up food from restaurants and putting it in the back of their hatchback so it started really small. Everyone was unpaid staff, a group of seven volunteers including Ina and Joan, then they grew from there. Then came year after year of growing, getting paid staff and moving into a bigger space.
Where is the organisation at now?
We’re now in our 32nd year and we delivered 9.5 million pounds of food last year alone. In our first year (1986) we delivered half a million pounds - we’ve grown so much. We don’t really pick up from restaurants that much as the volume isn’t really there and we are accountable to so many places that rely on us for food so we had to move to bigger places. A lot of our pick ups are food distribution places - meaning local grocery stores like a Loblaws (Canada’s Coles/Woolworths equivalent). We do pick up from individual Loblaws but we try and focus more on the Loblaws’ distribution centre. This is on the outskirts of the city but all of the food to their grocery store in Ottawa would be shipped out from there so we can get a large volume from there. We still also pick up from hotels and convention centres.
Has there been any resistance (as seen in the stigma towards dumpster diving) or has it mainly been a positive response?
It’s about 50/50. We have over four hundred and twenty food donors so it obviously ranges but we have a lot of food donors that do not want to be recognised for the same reason that restaurants don’t want to be seen as wasteful. We have a lot of support from major grocery stores that don’t want their name affiliated with us.
You would think that it would be a great affiliation as it's an act of good will?
There are other partners that don’t mind, they understand that that is the nature of the business. Sometimes you may order an excess amount of blueberries that don’t sell as you anticipated. Recently there was a big splash in the newspaper about Walmart throwing out food from a bunch of locations and there was outcry over that. They reached out and started a relationship with us and in turn they have really ramped up their donations. They recently just purchased a truck for us in December. That’s a new partnership that started from this public outcry.
How important is public outcry or the emergence of being food mindful been to Second Harvest?
It’s great to have public support and it has definitely helped our cause as the topic of food waste and the environment has grown in the last year. We’ve never had such a spotlight on us which has been great in raising our profile but in terms of public advocacy in pressuring grocery chains, that’s not really how we work.
Is it more of an organic relationship of ‘we have a solution to what can be done with your excess stock’?
Yes, we have a staff member whose title is ‘Food Recovery Manager’ and he’s dedicated specifically to relationships with all our donors as it's an open conversation.
How do deliveries work?
Nothing is in our warehouse for longer than 48 hours unless they are non perishables like crackers. Most truck routes have between 7 to 12 stops a day and some of those are pick ups and some are drop offs. For less work to pick up and drop off in the same day is best. The warehouse is generally fullest at the end of the day and empty in the morning with the drop offs.
Who do you provide for in the community?
We work with 225 agencies in the city and that’s anything from a homeless shelter, women's shelter, breakfast programs for kids, after school snack programs and refugee services. Someone may go to a refugee centre for computer services and there will be a snack program as food brings people out. We also provide food for food banks, and for some agencies we create food hampers and kits. We supply 88% perishables (bread, dairy, produce, protein, prep, juice/water, baked goods) and we pride ourselves on getting that percentage up everyday. We also have a program called Harvest Kitchens where we work with four kitchens in the city that provide training for people who have barriers to employment. We provide the food to these kitchens, they use the food to train their staff and then they prepare these massive trays that we pick up and deliver to agencies. These agencies are places that may not have kitchen facilities but they are able to warmth up the meals to serve it up. It’s a good double benefit that we can provide food for trays and culinary training.
What is the future for Second Harvest?
We just launched a strategic vision of the next four years and it’s just to grow and keep delivering more food. We know that there’s going to be more food insecure people out there and we want to be able to support more agencies. Right now we have about 60 agencies on our waitlist so the goal is always to get more agencies off the waitlist. We are not government funded so it’s all private and corporate donations. We want more trucks, more space - really it’s just about growth for us as the need is out there.
Second Harvest continues to provide food for 25K worth of meals a day with the help of 1,686 volunteers. By reusing otherwise wasted food, they have saved 5.1 million pounds of greenhouse gasses from entering the atmosphere.