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When farm organizations work with charities, everyone wins

More than a trend, feeding hungry people is becoming an essential business practice

When Bill Laidlaw was general manager of the Chicken Farmers of Ontario, he had no more insight than anyone else into what food banks were, what they did, or how they operated.

Now, as executive director of the Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB), he spends a lot of his time lobbying the government, companies and organizations to help keep his charity running, providing food to nearly 400,000 hungry people, many of them women, children and seniors.

Laidlaw has been encouraged recently with commodity groups that have revitalized old donation programs or started new ones. They’re catching on all across the country, and the Ontario example shows how and why.

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“Farm organizations recognize it’s the right thing to do,” Laidlaw says. “It’s good public relations, it shows they are good community citizens, and I think they realize that many people who use food banks come from rural areas.”

Having enjoyed a good relationship with the Dairy Farmers of Ontario for years, the OAFB recently reached new agreements with Ontario Pork, the Egg Farmers of Ontario, and the Beef Farmers of Ontario. Each organization approaches its contributions differently, but the results are clear. A lot of hungry people who need it are getting good wholesome protein in their diets.

Other commodity groups are engaged in other partnerships to achieve similar ends. The Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, for instance, is working directly with the province to send wholesome snacks to school kids in the north.

Meanwhile, Ontario Pork wanted to revitalize the Donate-a-Hog program started in 1998 by longtime agricultural advocate and producer Paul Mistele. Former board director Mary Ann Hendrikx and her husband Lyle, along with staff from the organization and the animal health company Elanco redesigned the program so it would reach more people. With the board’s approval, the program was piloted in the summer of 2013.

Under the new program, Ontario Pork, representing 1,600 producers, encourages processors to match, dollar for dollar, its $10,000 annual contribution. It provides funding to processors who then ship one-pound packages of ground pork to food bank distribution centres. Zoetis, Shur Gain, Elanco and Bob and Wendy Fraser added their contributions for last year’s successful pilot, which saw 10,000 pounds of ground pork distributed out of centres in Windsor, Sarnia, Chatham, London, Stratford, Guelph, Hamilton and Owen Sound.

fresh-vegetable-program-schoolkids

School kids in isolated northern Ontario communities get fresh fruits and vegetables, thanks to a partnership between growers and the province.

The main reason Ontario Pork revived the program was to give back to the community. “As farmers, we all live in rural communities, and are supportive of them,” says board chair Amy Cronin, who farms at Bluevale, Ont. “We want to help people faced with difficult situations, because we can also relate.”

Another reason is to get more people eating pork. The distributed packages come with tips on how to safely cook the meat, plus recipes that are both easy and tasty.

“With this program we are able to expose people to a product that they may not have previously tried, so we want them to have a good experience with it,” Cronin says.

This year, the campaign got underway at the end of July, and was expected to put 10,000 pounds of ground pork into dozens of central Ontario food banks.

In March, the Egg Farmers of Ontario (EFO), representing 460 producers, committed to donating at least $250,000 worth of product this year to the province’s food banks.

“We got involved because it’s a way of showing our social responsibility,” says Scott Graham, chair of the Egg Farmers of Ontario. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Individual egg farmers had been donating to food banks for a long time, but the board decided to take a province-wide approach as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations. A presentation by Bill Laidlaw to the board a couple of years ago in which he described the need started the ball rolling.

Under this program, egg farmers and others are encouraged to donate at least $50 to the EFO. The sum is the cash equivalent of one hen’s production for one year, or 25 dozen eggs. The organization then provides $20,000 a month to the food bank association and arranges for extra birds to be placed in either the donor’s barns or those of another producer who is willing and has extra space.

The OAFB then buys the eggs from suppliers Gray Ridge and Burnbrae, who donate the grading and processing costs.

Graham has taken the commitment to heart by personally contributing $5,000 — the equivalent of 100 hens’ production. While total donations so far are about $30,000 with 30 producers having contributed, he is confident that more will get on board as they replace their birds, which they do once a year.

Meanwhile, in June the Beef Farmers of Ontario (BFO) announced a $40,000 commitment to a new partnership with the food banks association.

“The reason we got involved is that I think it’s hard to believe that more than 375,000 Ontario people including 131,000 children access food banks every month,” says chair Bob Gordanier. “We learned that from a presentation by the food banks people last year, and also learned that protein is by far the most needed item.”

“They asked if we could help,” Gordanier says. “We said we could.”

The BFO provides the funding to the OAFB, which then buys the ground beef and distributes it where it is needed the most. This year’s contribution will buy 28,000 servings for hungry people.

Gordanier says that many individual beef farmers and county associations have been donating for years, but this is the first time the provincial organization has contributed on behalf of its 19,000 membership.

“Our producers are proud of having the name Beef Farmers of Ontario attached to something as important as this,” Gordanier says.

Wrapping a shipment of vegetables for delivery.

Wrapping a shipment of vegetables for delivery.

Earlier this year, the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association (OFVGA), with 28 member organizations representing more than 7,500 fruit and vegetable farmers, expanded an eight-year program that provides fresh snacks to schoolchildren in northern Ontario.

The Ministry of Health is providing the OFVGA with about $1.1 million each year for the next three to give 38,000 kids in 191 schools fruit and vegetable snacks twice a week. The program runs for 20 weeks starting in January.

All the logistical and procurement work is done centrally through OFVGA program co-ordinator Alison Robertson. She says that the program started nine years ago when her organization was approached by the ministry to help deal with obesity and other health problems that were showing up in school-aged kids in the north.

“At the time, some people thought it wouldn’t work — that the kids would just throw the snacks in the garbage,” Robertson says. “There was some waste in the first month, but after that it went to zero, and eventually teachers started to report that they were seeing fresh fruits and veggies showing up in the kids’ lunch boxes.”

In the fall, Robertson starts lining up suppliers and transportation and is ready to roll in January. Each of 11 to 14 growers provides product two or three times through the next five months, and each receives fair market prices for their efforts.

“We realized that it wouldn’t last very long if we kept asking people to just give their products away,” Robertson says.

As a result of the volumes, Robertson pays wholesale prices, and has refined her distribution system over the years so that it now works very smoothly and she can keep a close eye on both the budget and food safety, including product handling and traceability.

With the program’s expansion this year, a deal with the North West Company retailer sees the snacks hitch a ride on the company’s supply planes to communities like Peawanuk and Attiwapiskat.

The goal of the program is not only to bolster the children’s health, but to also encourage youngsters to develop a lifelong habit of eating fresh produce. The association knows too that it also provides the OFVGA with leverage when the organization lobbies the government on behalf of its grower members.

This article was originally published as, “When good deeds are good business” in the September 2014 issue of Country Guide

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