Tania Little has deep gratitude for the support that farmers and farm groups give to Food Banks Canada. As chief development and partnership officer at FBC, it is Little’s job to connect sources of quality surplus food with the 4,700 agencies in the Canadian food bank network.
“Farmers are very generous at heart … they want to feed people. They don’t grow food to see it go to waste,” says Little.
Every month, Canada’s food banks feed more than a million mouths (pre-pandemic), so there is clearly a pressing need.
FBC and food banks across the country have long-standing relationships with egg, chicken, turkey and dairy farmer associations, and more recently with bison, veal, duck and fisheries producers.
While Little is grateful for the partnerships with the ag community, she knows there is still more food that could be recovered.
With research showing almost $50 billion worth of food is wasted in Canada each year, Little welcomes conversations with the ag community about how the food bank community can be smart partners to help farmers reduce food waste and feed their neighbours.
Little says farmers with food to donate can contact their nearest food bank (a searchable list is available on the Food Banks Canada website). For larger amounts that might require greater logistics or support, farmers can contact Food Banks Canada directly.
Most provinces offer fresh food tax credits to farmers who donate food.
“We try to make it easy for farmers,” says Little. “Our food team works with plane, rail and truck logistics to ensure the food gets to where it’s needed.”
Passing it along
Food donations that surpass local needs are shared with other areas in need. Food Banks Canada’s own studies plus data from Stats Canada are used to determine the proportional food-sharing formula.
For example, a food bank like Daily Bread in Toronto relies on donations from the financial, manufacturing and retail sectors while a food bank like UHC — Hub of Opportunity in Windsor — receives tremendous donations of food year-round from vegetable farms and greenhouses in the surrounding Essex County.
“The UHC makes one million servings of soup each year in its community kitchen through the Farm to Food Program,” says UHC food rescue program manager Mike Turnbull. The soups are vacuum-sealed in plastic bags, flash-frozen and palletized for easy shipping. Some of the soup is distributed locally and some of it goes to food banks in other areas through Feed Ontario, the province’s largest collective of hunger-relief organizations.
Several soups are made by Red Seal certified chefs to suit specific dietary and cultural needs. Volunteers help the chefs, and the community kitchen also serves as an off-site campus for students to learn food skills.
Along with the human capacity, an investment in infrastructure including a walk-in freezer, dicing machine, community kitchen and refrigerated truck extend their reach.
“It’s win-win,” says Turnbull, noting that the program diverts surplus or other produce that is still useable but doesn’t meet market demands. That food would otherwise be tilled back into the soil or end up in a landfill where it produces damaging greenhouse gases.
UHC also has warehouse space where volunteers sort the skids of incoming produce into 13- to 20-pound boxes of assorted fresh fruit and vegetables which are shared with other food agencies throughout southern Ontario.
The UHC currently rescues three to four million pounds of food per year but can do more, says Turnbull.
The need doesn't go away
While food banks were originally started to fill an emergency need situation, the reality is that the need isn’t going away, says Turnbull. “It grows every year.”
When Turnbull started working at UHC a decade ago, he went out and knocked on doors to raise awareness of the organization’s food rescue programs. He continues to foster those relationships, working with the greenhouse growers’ association. He has been at it for so long that now people approach him to pick up surplus food, he says.
Besides donations from farmers and farm groups, there are several other points in the food system where Food Banks Canada recovers food, says Little. “We work to intersect quality food at any point in the system.”
Food Banks Canada works with manufacturers to take surplus food when an order has fallen through, when a product has been mislabelled (such as a spelling error), or when manufacturing has exceeded demand.
At the retail level, FBC recovers food from the “back of store.” This includes produce, proteins, dairy and “quick and ready” items that need to be consumed soon as well as other processed foods that are 60 to 90 days out from their best-before dates.
From front-of-store, FBC collects the donations purchased by donors such as dried pasta, canned tuna and jars of peanut butter. Non-perishable items also come via food drives and drop-offs at a variety of community drop-off sites such as firehalls.
“We glean and gather from every part of the system,” says Little.
A growing network
Some of the food banks’ other food collection streams are less well-known to the public. Some manufacturers have intentionally built in a dedicated first run set of products for food banks. For example, Kraft Heinz has a five-year commitment to donate nutritionally valuable product such as baby food, legumes, peanut butter and tomato sauce. “These foods have the full 12- to 24-month shelf-life,” says Little.
Canadian food banks also purchase more than $100 million worth of food each year. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic when supply chains were having to adjust to changing markets due to stay-at-home orders, about $50 million worth of proteins, dairy, cheese and eggs were purchased nationally and redistributed to complement food recovered, donated and purchased locally.
Most people are unaware that the Food Bank has its own private label, Little adds. In partnership with the For Good Foundation, surplus foods are canned or packaged by manufacturing partners, and provided to local food banks.
Regardless of the source, food safety is a focus throughout the system, says Little. The 30 largest food banks across the country have substantial warehouses and cold chain technology.
“Food safety is a top priority and we work with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Public Health to guarantee protocols are followed,” says Little, noting that strong traceability and food recall systems are in place.
While some people may associate food banks with canned tuna and pasta, says Little, “food banks have really evolved to meet a variety of cultural and diverse needs across the community and ensure food safety with high-nutrient-dense foods.”
Who to call?
Farmers with food to donate can contact their nearest food bank (a searchable list is available on the Food Banks Canada website) or, for larger amounts, contact Food Banks Canada directly. Most provinces offer fresh food tax credits to farmers who donate food.