Nearly 60 per cent of food produced in Canada is lost or wasted each year according to Second Harvest Food Rescue. A third of that waste is still edible, yet it goes to landfills instead of towards those who could use it. And impacts the environment as well.
“Food loss and waste is one of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions globally,” says Corey Smith, Director of Development at Second Harvest.
“And when food gets diverted from landfill,” Smith explains “that means we’re preventing those emissions from entering the atmosphere.”
Second Harvest is the largest food rescue charity in the country. It’s been on the go since 1985, when its founders were out canvassing in Toronto (on behalf of the Red Cross) to raise funds for the famine in Ethiopia. As they began having conversations about hunger with their community, they became aware of the extent to which hunger was a local problem. “They began going out every day after work in the little hatchback,” says Smith, “and picking up leftover food from restaurants and catering companies to deliver it to homeless shelters.”
Since then, the charity has expanded. There are now 11 Second Harvest refrigerated trucks going out in the Greater Toronto Area, collecting large supplies of perishable food from big donors, and delivering it to local social service organizations.
A 2019 study conducted by Second Harvest revealed that 11 million metric tonnes of perfectly good food produced in Canada — worth about $49 billion — goes to landfills each year. The charity realized a need to increase their efforts. “But it simply wasn’t feasible for us to do that using our direct delivery model,” said Smith. “So we developed the FoodRescue.ca program in response to that need.”
The “eHarmony of Food Rescue”
FoodRescue.ca is Second Harvest’s new web platform. It launched in Ontario in 2018, then B.C. in 2019 but, since COVID-19, it’s currently operating far beyond the GTA, in communities in every province and territory. “We like to think of this program as the eHarmony of food rescue,” says Smith, on how it works. Whether it’s the manager of a Loblaws supermarket, or an independent bakery in small-town B.C., donors can log on to the site any time they have surplus food to donate — whether it’s 5 or 500 pounds. The system posts that donation to local social service organizations registered on the platform. “The notifications come via computer and cell phone,” says Vicki England, a food bank coordinator in Sydenham, Ontario. “It’s hard to miss.”
The social service can see the amount of food and the type that’s available. And if they want it, it’s a match. They can go directly to the donor to pick up the food. Now, that food isn’t going into landfills where it will create methane gas, but into fresh meals for the local community.
The impact of having sufficient amounts of food to help those in need is considerable. Laura Kiss, who runs Elisa House, an emergency shelter for women in Toronto, says, “With the additional food we are getting through FoodRescue.ca, we have noticed that the atmosphere is calmer and there is less conflict.”
These days, FoodRescue.ca is helping over 1,500 social service organizations in Canada. “We’ve just surpassed 2.1 million pounds of food rescued through this system,” says Smith, “so we’re seeing a fair bit of momentum.”
And one of the big benefits of the FoodRescue.ca web platform? It’s scalable.
Expanding Food Donations in Response to COVID-19
“We’re so excited to be working with RBC Foundation to help bring the platform to more communities,” says Smith of the RBC Tech for Nature program, through which the bank is supporting Second Harvest in expanding the FoodRescue.ca web platform countrywide. “RBC Foundation has certainly come to the table with a lot of different avenues of support for us, which has been incredible,” she says. “It’s just a fantastic match.”
Initially, the plan for 2020 was to just focus on rolling the online platform out so food donors in Saskatchewan and Alberta could easily match to local service organizations in need. “But in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re actually in the process of scaling the system up much faster than we had intended to,” Smith says.
“We’ve obviously seen an incredible increase in the need for food in communities across the country,” Smith explains, “so we’re working with a number of different partners on a bit of a coalition approach to getting this up and running nationwide.”
That means even more food saved in Canada, even more people getting access to the fresh meals they need, and even more edible food not going to landfills.
Last year, Second Harvest diverted 15.6 million pounds of food from landfills — the equivalent of diverting 64 million pounds of greenhouse gas emissions. This year, as the FoodRescue.ca online platform continues to scale, including the launch of a new mobile app, Second Harvest has increased those numbers again, responding to the flood of unsold fresh food from the foodservice industry in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions. As the impact continues to be felt, the environmental and social role of Second Harvest and FoodRescue.ca has never been clearer.
“We’re at a critical and unprecedented time in our history, and people need stable access to healthy food more than ever. Losing food to landfill is not an option,” says Smith. “We’re up against some extraordinary challenges, and it’s good to know RBC Foundation is helping us meet and overcome them.”
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