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FoodShare provides fresh vegetables, food security

Farm groups are getting on the inside with Toronto’s world-class food outreach program

When I fire off a last-minute email to confirm the details of my scheduled visit, I mention that I have never before seen a food bank. Debbie Field, executive director of FoodShare, politely responds, “We are not a food bank,” she tells me. “We’re a community food hub.”

Food bank, food hub.

But the next day, as my tour gets underway, I’m quickly humbled into the realization that there is a big difference after all. As we leave the brightly painted green and yellow office and walk down a hallway in this former school building, Field talks about the many FoodShare programs.

She tells me too that she suggested today for my visit because today is packing day for the Good Food Boxes, which I also come to see is the right place to start, because Good Food Boxes are such a powerful symbol of how this urban, non-profit organization is promoting and increasing the consumption of fresh produce by marketing the idea of good food.

More than that, these boxes also show how FoodShare is forging alliances with farmers.

Good food box

FoodShare's Executive Director Debbie Field

FoodShare’s Executive Director Debbie Field, holds a Good Food Box in FoodShare’s warehouse.
photo: greenfusephotos.com

Field is an icon in Canadian food circles, although little known on most farms. She freely calls herself an activist, and her bio points to decades of proof that she deserves the label, starting with her joining three other women in 1979 to launch a successful human rights case against the male-only hiring practices of steel-maker Stelco, just about the biggest manufacturer in Canada at the time.

Since then, Field has participated in countless campaigns, including a long list that stem from strong left-of-centre political connections.

But since 1992, when she joined FoodShare, her main focus has been to tackle society’s ills through food. Clearly, this is a job she excels at, and her energy is considerable, as just about any of the numbers that spill out of FoodShare will attest.

Formed in 1985 as a fledgling non-profit with a vague mission to provide food security, FoodShare got its start just one year after the first modern-era Daily Bread Food Bank opened in the city in 1984, based on an Edmonton food bank opened in 1983.

Make no mistake. FoodShare does believe in what it calls food security, and in what it defines as every citizen’s right to food. But FoodShare also believes that consumers — especially children — need to know more about how to make the best food choices.

Field also sees larger social gains. Food isn’t only healthy, she likes to say. It can also be healing.

By 1996, Field was being haled by influential NOW magazine as one of Toronto’s 10 best organizers, and the accolades have continued non-stop ever since. Today, FoodShare defines itself as “Canada’s largest food security organization,” with a $6.4 million budget that comes in roughly equal measures from sales and from donations from foundations and individuals, plus 13 per cent from municipal and federal grants.

More phenomenal are its other numbers. In 2013, FoodShare had 54 staff — plus 5,133 volunteers, and together they reached out to 223,316 children and adults in all 140 Toronto neighbourhoods through their almost incredibly wide variety of programs (see “FoodShare’s many touchpoints” below).

Good food boxing

As we continue our tour, Field delivers me to a cavernous room made brighter by two open loading doors. This is the room where the Good Food Boxes are packed. The lines of people pack food boxes with a wide variety of fruit and vegetables.

The boxes are a non-profit produce distribution system, not unlike a buying club. People place box orders with a neighbourhood volunteer co-ordinator, and receive a box weekly, bi-weekly or monthly.

Field hands me the slip of paper listing the contents of today’s boxes: a half bag of apples, one cabbage, four ears of corn, one lettuce, one bag of onions, one kale, one basket of peaches, a half container of plums, 1.5 pounds sweet potatoes, one pound of tomatoes, and one zucchini.

“Look at that value for $18,” says Field as she points towards a completed box, because that $18 is exactly what a consumer pays for this box.

While the value is excellent, this food box is not subsidized by food donations. “They (farmers) are not donating to us. We’re paying full price,” says Field, explaining that FoodShare purchases directly from local farms and from the Ontario Food Terminal.

“These are gorgeous,” declares a volunteer, pulling out a beautiful, red leaf lettuce from a box stamped with the name of a farm in Quebec. The volunteer explains to me that these lettuces are not seconds. Nor are they the picked-through produce that one might expect at a food bank. These are top-grade vegetables, and she is the first person to handle it since it was packed at the farm.

Field says that with the exception of two employees, all of the dozen or so people in the room are volunteers — both low-income and corporate. The low-income volunteers receive lunch at the FoodShare cafeteria and a food box on the day they volunteer.

In deciding what goes into the boxes, Field says the top priorities are that the contents be healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate. Second to these are that the produce is local and seasonal.

children eating apples

Teaching children healthy eating habits will make them good farm customers all their lives, Farmshare believes.
photo: greenfusephotos.com

She picks up a small, yellow plum and explains that at this time of year, they are locally grown, which she considers a good thing. But because this sort of plum is a very good snacking fruit — a way to encourage a child to eat fruit — it is something FoodShare might buy out of season even if not locally produced. Field says FoodShare buys organic produce only if it is the same price as non-organic produce, explaining, “We don’t think it’s fair to burden them (shoppers) with a food system problem beyond their control.”

In 2013, through its various programs, FoodShare distributed 2,240,000 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables. It bought $1,442,073 worth of fresh produce, $456,558 directly from local family farms. For an organization with a mission to increase access to and knowledge of good healthy food, that is good marketing.

FoodShare’s many touchpoints

The mission of FoodShare is to increase access to and knowledge of good healthy food. Some of its many programs include:

  • Mobile Good Food Market: market trucks sell fresh produce in Toronto neighbourhoods where it might not be otherwise available.
  • Field to Table Schools: Teaches students food literacy, including food systems, cooking, nutrition, food gardens, and composting.
  • Wellness Boxes: Delivered by Meals on Wheels to seniors, a box contains 35 servings of ready-to-use produce such as cut-up vegetables.
  • Composting: FoodShare produces a large amount of organic waste, which is composted on site, an excellent teaching opportunity. In 2013, 55,115 pounds of organic waste was composted to create 27,557 pounds of compost.
  • Bulk Produce Program: Delivers fresh produce weekly to approximately 260 schools, 20 non-profit child care centres, 75 parenting centres, and 15 non-profit agencies across Toronto.
  • Growing Food: FoodShare has a greenhouse and demonstration garden, and also facilitates school gardens in partnership with the Toronto District School board.
  • Good Food Café: a model for a healthy, affordable school cafeteria, this kitchen at the FoodShare headquarters prepares healthy, affordable food for staff, volunteers, and visitors.

Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association Visits FoodShare

In August, 2014 the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association (OFVGA) visited FoodShare as part of its annual summer tour and barbecue. Alison Robertson, OFVGA program manager, explains this annual event brings together 80 to 90 people including farm leaders from a wide variety of commodities, along with industry stakeholders and agricultural extension personnel.

Until this year the tour visited farms and processors. “We had never done Toronto,” Robertson says. “We decided to take everybody out of what they know.”

The tour started with the ontario Food Terminal, a distribution hub for fresh produce. The next destination was a processor. The final stop was FoodShare.

“I was worried,” says Robertson, as she describes how this tour was different from past tours.

She’s pleased with the feedback, however, adding, “Some people said it was the best tour ever.”

“Sometimes you’re in your own world of growing or packaging,” she says of the need to see other players in the food system. She says there were good connections made. “It’s amazing what a bunch of very passionate people are doing in an old school.”

FoodShare and Norfolk Fruit Growers’ Association

Growing the next generation of apple consumers

During the interview, Debbie Field chomps on a good-looking apple from a nearby bin while touring the area where the Good Food boxes are packed. “This is an apple that would normally have gone to export or juice,” Field says, noting its small size. It’s a size rarely seen on Canadian shelves.

But the small, Ontario-grown apples are a great fit for FoodShare. Their size makes them snack-friendly and suitable for the Good Food boxes, while the price is lower than top-grade apples.

The small apples come from the Norfolk Fruit Growers’ Association. Tom o’Neill from Norfolk Fruit Growers’ later tells me some industry people ask him, “Why would you bother to do that?” wondering why he spends time on a relatively small-volume program. His response: “The sooner you get kids to eat an apple, the sooner you get kids to eat them the rest of their lives.”

“If you go in the store you might think apples come from Washington State,” O’Neill says. Not only does he want people to get used to apples — he wants them to get used to Ontario apples. Field says what o’Neill is doing here at FoodShare is getting apples into the mouths of a wide variety of people, many from countries where apples aren’t a traditional food.

This articles was originally published as “A slice of FoodShare,” in the November 2014 issue of Country Guide

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Steven Biggs is an author, writer, and speaker who shares stories from the food chain. Find him at stevenbiggs.ca.

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