I live in a small community, Gabriola Island, situated off the east side of Vancouver Island (the largest island off the west coast of North America and bigger than some provinces, states and even countries!). We may be small in numbers but there is a real collective spirit and sense of community here. Our demographics are shaped by factors such as housing, real estate costs, employment, access to health care and the necessity to travel by ferry for services.
In the almost twenty years I’ve lived here the population has ebbed and flowed, staying relatively stable at 4000, but as a whole we’re aging (average age is 55, so I’m just on the north side of that). Compared to the general population of Canada we are better educated, more well traveled and have a higher concentration of artists and writers than most communities. We’re known at the Isle of the Arts and have a number of events to showcase our talents: the Theatre Festival, Poetry Festival, Studio Tour and many concerts, plays and films throughout the year.
We have an amazing number of services and amenities for our size: a beautiful medical clinic, all kinds of complementary health practitioners, dental clinic, veterinarian, an elementary school, shops, restaurants, marinas, parks and beaches. We also have our share of poverty, struggles to find affordable housing, and mental health and substance use issues.
For the last two decades, our only social service agency, People For A Healthy Community (PHC) has operated on the island. They are located on the ground floor of The Commons, providing a number of services aimed at assisting marginalized and isolated folks, supporting seniors, fostering community connections and strengthening food security. They offer counseling and outreach, grief and caregiver support groups, seniors’ activities and food-related programs.
PHC employs a handful of folks – most of them part-time – and has a roster of volunteers that are involved in various aspects of their projects. The coordinator of the food recovery initiative, Kenda, oversees everything related to food security. Through government grants, fundraising and donations they run a number of programs revolving around food:
- Soup Socials: (Monday, Tuesday, Friday) bringing together a diverse group of folks sharing meals and conversations
- Food Bank (Tuesday)
- Elementary School Breakfast, Lunch and Emergency Food Program
- Farmers’ Market Coupons: folks in need are given $336 worth of coupons redeemable at the farmer’s market for purchases of produce or proteins from participating Agricultural Co-op members (farmers are then reimbursed).
- Kids’ Garden and Cooking Program: once a week through the spring growing season the whole school comes to PHC, one class at a time, and spends time in the community garden allotments and cooking to garner some first hand experience about where their food comes from and how to best use it.
- Kids’ After-School & Camp: teaching kids food literacy and cooking skills.
- Food Pick Up: Wednesday pick up @Christ Church Gabriola and intermittent pick up at The Hope Centre for families with children.
“Food is a great way to support and connect with people. It brings together all the pieces of a puzzle: food recovery, farmers, food literacy and access to skills building. We all need to eat, we can all share a meal. Food pulls the community together.” – Kenda (PHC served 15,000 meals in 2018).
Some of the food used in their programs comes from their own gardens (supported by staff, summer students and volunteers) and grants, but the lion’s share is from donations from our local grocery store, Nesters. In recent years there has been a shift in the way that large chain grocery stores work with local communities, collaborating at the local level to reduce waste and to support food security.
PHC has partnered with Nesters to recover unsellable non-perishables, dairy and bread that would otherwise be destined for the landfill. When I first had chickens the grocery store would leave boxes of fruits and veggies at their back door on a daily basis. It was hit or miss: sometimes there would be nothing, while other times I’d score with a whole car load.
A couple of years ago, PHC formalized an arrangement with Village Foods (now Nesters) in which volunteers pick up boxes of unsellable produce six days a week. Everything is taken to PHC and a team of volunteers spends 30-60 minutes sorting box loads of produce into three streams: for people (soup socials, food bank); farmers and compost. All the plastic wrap, elastic bands, twist ties and packaging is removed and, where possible, recycled.
They currently have 20 volunteers who help with food sorting. If you’ve got some time to help out, Kenda would love to hear from you. Depending on the amount of produce collected and the number of helpers it can take as little as 30 minutes once a week.
The food recovery scheme has saved a phenomenal amount of usable food from ending up in the landfill. Last year, they collected over 26,000 lbs, with 40% of it going to local farmers. As a chicken keeper who has regularly benefitted from this opportunity I’ve saved money on feed costs and my chickens are happier and healthier for the wide range of produce they get.
The animal food is put into two metal cans at their kitchen door Monday – Friday under the chicken sign. Anyone can help themselves, but it’s advisable to bring your own boxes or buckets and some gloves.
I do the pick up on Saturdays when PHC is closed and take everything to my friends, Thomas and Elizabeth’s, where we also sort into three piles: for people, animals and compost. They have three goats, chickens and ducks so keep some for them and I take some home for my flock too. I often make drop-offs along my route home to other chicken (or alpaca, goat, duck) keepers.
We have more than enough people-grade food to go around, so we’re forming an email list of folks interested in being notified of what’s available for pick up each Saturday. If you’re on Gabriola and want to get on the list contact me directly.
If you live elsewhere and are envious of our bounty here are some tips for reclaiming still edible food that would otherwise be going to waste:
The easiest thing is plug into an existing food recovery program. Many food banks have a stream for farmers/compost. If you’ve got a food bank in your community find out what they do with non-perishables that aren’t suitable for human consumption. (Check out Loaves & Fishes in Nanaimo or LOOP Resource for programs in various communities across western Canada.)
Contact your local grocery stores (chains often have disposal contracts), restaurants, bakeries, small-scale breweries or juice bars. They often prefer a regular pick up. If you don’t have the time, get together with a couple of friends, make a schedule and divide the workload.
I used to pick up kitchen scraps from a local restaurant. I had two bins (one for vegetable peelings and uncooked food and the other for coffee grounds) that I picked up twice a week. I was getting so much and didn’t have the time to pick up regularly so I passed that opportunity on to Thomas, who’s been doing it for the last couple of years. Most of it goes into their compost, but their flock digs through it picking out some things to eat while turning their compost at the same time.
Ask your vet what they do with canned and dry pet food that reaches their best before date. My vet used to compost theirs until I asked for it. Now I get all the canned and dried dog and cat food as it reaches the best before, but still usable, date.
There are plenty of opportunities to divert edible food from the landfill. Use your imagination. Knock on doors, make phone calls, speak to managers. Most businesses, large and small, would probably be happy to reduce their waste and disposal costs knowing that they are also increasing food security for both people and animals.
The key to ongoing relationships with donors is to be reliable and considerate. If people are giving you stuff for free show up when you said you would. They’re busy so your arrangement shouldn’t add anything to their workload. In my experience, word of mouth is a great way to find stuff and being thoughtful is the way to keep folks wanting to help you out.