Brussels sprouts get a bad rap. They are an emblem of obligatory nutrition, the stuff children dread to see when told to clean their plates. But on this crisp, sunny morning, Stan Neatt greets a passel of the maligned green buds with uncommon enthusiasm.
"We'll take that," the door person and receptionist at the Evangel Hall Mission says cheerily. "We love Brussels sprouts!"
Mr. Neatt is peering into the back of a refrigerated truck belonging to Second Harvest, a Toronto charity that operates the largest food recovery program in Canada. The truck and six others like it make a daily crawl through Toronto's neighbourhoods, picking up food that is at risk of going to waste from grocery stores, restaurants, caterers and others, and handing it off to agencies and drop-in centres such as this one.
The staff at Evangel Hall shuttle in food including potatoes, red peppers, lettuce and breakfast sausages. A box of bananas made their way on to the truck less than an hour before; they are still good, but they need to be eaten quickly. They would not sell at the Whole Foods in Yorkville – too many brown spots – so the management set them aside. They find a home here.
Evangel Hall provides roughly 50,000 meals per year to homeless and low-income individuals in the community, and it depends on Second Harvest for 80 per cent of the food that goes into those meals.
That is not uncommon among the agencies we visit along the route. What started in 1985 as an ad hoc project of two Toronto women who noticed a lot of food was going to waste has ballooned to an organization that picks up more than seven million pounds of food headed for the garbage each year.
In so doing, it plugs a hole in the food system for people in need: While food banks are great at redistributing non-perishable goods, they do not have the quick-response infrastructure to handle fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy.
"People need nutrition," says Theo Prociw, drop-in co-ordinator at the Corner Drop-in at St. Stephen's Community Centre. He is watching volunteers and staff at the facility in Kensington Market as they unload zucchinis and eggplants from the Second Harvest truck. "The fresh food is critical. That is not the food banks' specialty."
For people like Mr. Prociw, cooking only with non-perishable ingredients (and the fresh food that a small non-profit's budget would allow) means providing nutritionally inferior meals. Without a reliable source of fresh food, those in need would eat like second-class citizens.
In Canada, a growing number of people are having trouble feeding themselves. A report released this week found that the number of people using food banks and related programs in Canada is 25 per cent higher than it was before the recession. That does not only include unemployed or homeless Canadians: The working poor account for one-sixth of the population using food banks.
"You can see the relief on their faces," says driver Sami Abdurahim of the people who sometimes line up to wait for his truck.
Meanwhile, those who can pay for food leave plenty behind.
"The consumer wants to always buy it perfect," said Debra Lawson, the executive director of Second Harvest. "We're not talking about bad food here. We're talking about good food."
Globally, up to one-third of food produced for humans goes to waste, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In Canada, some estimates are even higher, as much as 40 per cent or $27-billion worth of food wasted.
It can be difficult to determine exact numbers, however, since businesses often do not track the exact amount of food they waste and since about half of that waste occurs at the hands of consumers. A recent study by a food and beverage industry group called Provision Coalition recommended that a clear definition of food waste is needed, and that waste should be measured more closely.
"We're big advocates of minimizing waste," says Adrian Griffin, store manager at the Loblaws at Bayview and Sheppard, where Mr. Abdurahim is making one of two weekly stops, this time picking up boxes of bell peppers, golden delicious apples, cauliflower and tomatoes. Loblaw has been a partner of Second Harvest for more than 25 years. This store alone donates roughly 70 kilograms a week of produce, meats, dairy and bakery items.
Produce that looks ripe enough that it needs to be eaten within a day or two often won't sell, Mr. Griffin explains. But it's still good, as long as it moves quickly. Second Harvest has a turnaround time of 24 to 48 hours.
The organizations they work with are seeing the need increase.
"As the cost of rent goes up in this city, people end up putting sometimes their whole income into housing," the Corner Drop-in's Mr. Prociw says. And for his centre, Second Harvest supplies about 40 per cent of the food. "This saves us resources that we can put into other things."
BY THE NUMBERS
7,095,218: pounds of food rescued in the last fiscal year (September 2013 to August 2014)
616: food donors
200: social service agencies across Toronto that receive food from Second Harvest
50+: agencies on the waiting list
100,000: estimated number of people who receive some of that food every month
40%: Second Harvest food recipients who are children or youth
10: "Hunger Squad" teams of volunteers who pick up donations of food small enough that it does not make financial sense to send a truck, and deliver those donations to Second Harvest
213,820: pounds of meals provided through the Harvest Kitchen program, which uses Second Harvest food to prepare meals that are redistributed to agencies that don't have their own kitchens
WHO DONATES THE FOOD
Manufacturers, processors and growers (e.g. Agropur Fine Cheese Division, ConAgra Foods Canada Inc., Maple Leaf Foods Inc., Sun-Rype Products Ltd., Weston Bakeries Limited, etc.)
Retailers (e.g. Highland Farms, Loblaw Cos. Ltd., Longo Brothers Fruit Markets Inc., Metro Ontario Inc., Sobeys Inc., Wal-Mart Canada Inc., etc.)
Distributors and brokers (e.g. Midland Transport, Ontario Food Terminal, Sysco Canada, Cott Beverages, etc.)
Wholesalers and warehouses (e.g. Conestoga Cold Storage, Metro Canada Logistics, Millard Refrigerated Services, Thomson Terminals, etc.)
Foodservice, hospitality and event spaces (e.g. Air Canada Centre, Aramark Canada, Canada's Wonderland, Fairmount Royal York Hotel, Hilton Toronto, Rogers Centre, Starbucks Coffee Co., etc.)
Events and Non-profits (e.g. The Terry Fox Run, Honda Indy Toronto, Gourmet Food & Wine Expo, etc.)
Institutions in finance, healthcare, education and business (e.g. City of Toronto, Kew Beach Junior Public School, Ryerson University, Baycrest Hospital, Great-West Life Assurance Co., etc.)
Reciprocal partners (other charities that give perishable food they may receive to Second Harvest for quick distribution, in exchange for non-perishable items that Second Harvest will sometimes give to them, e.g. Daily Bread Food Bank, Food Banks Canada, Forgotten Harvest Canada, Salvation Army – Railside Location, etc.)
WHO GETS THE FOOD
Food banks and supplementary food programs (e.g. Canadian Red Cross Mobile Food Bank, some Boys & Girls Club locations, Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, Scott Mission, The Stop Community Food Centre, etc.)
Meal programs (e.g. North York Seniors Centre, Parkdale Focus Breakfast Club, Wychwood Open Door, YWCA Toronto Kingston and YWCA Toronto 1st Stop Woodlawn, etc.)
After-school and summer programs (e.g. Alexandra Park Community Centre, Cabbagetown Youth Centre, Fred Victor women's hostel, Native Child and Family Services of Toronto youth drop-in, etc.)
Summer Camps (e.g. Toronto Youth Development camps, Youth Unlimited, etc.)
Shelters and residences (e.g. Christie Refugee Welcome Centre, Dixon Hall, Good Shepherd Centre, Interval House, Reconnect Mental Health Services, etc.)