Canadian Food Banks, Supermarkets Team up to Feed the Hungry, Reduce Waste

Quebec leads the way in devising an efficient supermarket food recovery program
March 30, 2017 Updated: March 30, 2017
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VANCOUVER—While millions of dollars worth of unsold fresh food ends up in landfills across Canada, food banks and supermarkets are teaming up to get more perishable food into the hands of those who need it most, avoiding harmful waste.

In Quebec, a supermarket food recovery program was launched in 2013 to tackle the rise in demand at food banks in the province and the massive amounts of food rotting in local landfills. Officials in the province said last year that the project, dubbed the first of its kind in Canada, had 177 supermarkets on board donating 2.5 million kilograms of food. It is set to expand further this year.

“The fascinating thing about what’s happening in Montreal and Quebec, and even in all of Canada, is there is enough surplus food to feed everybody,” said Sam Watts, the chief executive officer of Welcome Hall Mission, a large food bank in Montreal.

“There’s no problem with food—the challenge is building the partnerships, managing the supply chain, and getting distribution together in a way that is both dignified and safe.”

The province of Quebec, which chipped in with a $400,000 grant to help with transportation costs, said the ultimate goal is to reduce food waste by 8 million kilograms.

The challenge is building the partnerships, managing the supply chain, and getting distribution together in a way that is both dignified and safe.
— Sam Watts, Welcome Hall Mission

Watts and other food bank leaders are optimistic the success of the recovery program in Quebec could be duplicated across the country if more key players work together to increase the infrastructure needed to accommodate the regular intake of fresh food, such as meat, dairy, produce, and baked goods, from grocery stores.

But Food Banks Canada said a one-size-fits-all approach likely wouldn’t work, as geography plays a role in the ability to collect and redistribute the food. Many provinces have smaller organizations whereas in Quebec food banks are more centralized.

“Every province has a different structure of networks with their food banks, so every province has to figure out the best way that they can [to increase food recovery],” said Marzena Gersho, Food Banks Canada’s communication director. “But certainly there have been existing long-term relationships between local food banks and supermarkets over a number of years.”

Gersho said other provinces have seen a recent increase in the ability to collect more perfectly edible food from supermarkets. She noted that last week, the Walmart Foundation announced a $2 million grant to pay for more refrigeration trucks for transport purposes and additional refrigerator and storage space to help redistribute the food in a multitude of communities in Canada.

She added that Walmart and Loblaws have also been donating more fresh food to food banks throughout Canada, and she sees this only increasing as awareness grows with the surge in food bank usage across the country. Currently, around 900,000 people, a third of whom are children, rely on food banks each month, a 28 percent increase from 2008.

The province of B.C. has also stepped up to the plate, announcing on March 22 a $10 million grant to increase food bank infrastructure to help collect more food in the province.

A man receives food from volunteers at the Welcome Hall Mission in Montreal on March 14, 2017. (The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes)
A man receives food from volunteers at the Welcome Hall Mission in Montreal on March 14, 2017. (The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes)

“Right now, food banks in B.C. turn down thousands of pounds of perfectly good donated meats, vegetables, fruits, and fresh milk because their facilities simply don’t have enough—or any—refrigeration capacity,” Minister of Social Development Michelle Stilwell said in an email to Epoch Times.

“Our government’s investment to support refrigeration capacity for food banks across the province now means perfectly fresh, nutritious food will go to families in need.”

Food Banks BC said the $10 million boost will be distributed throughout the 100 food banks in the province and it expects the capacity to collect and redistribute food could look something similar to what is being done in Quebec.

“That’s the absolute key for this to work,” said Laura Lansink, executive director of Food Banks BC. “If our food banks can have the freezers, the fridges, and the transportation that’s refrigerated to get the food back and forth and redistribute it, that’s addressing 99 percent of the problem.”

For Lansink and Watts, a working partnership with supermarkets has always been a key part of reducing the amount of fresh food getting trashed and increasing the number of people in need getting fed.

The grocery division of the Retail Council of Canada (RCC), which represents 97 percent of Canadian supermarkets, said that as long as the food products are managed in a safe way, there’s no reason why donations across Canada could not increase.

“There is a goal for grocery stores to ensure the product stays out of the waste stream,” said David Wilkes, senior vice-president of the grocery division at RCC. “And if there’s opportunity to broaden our relationship [with food banks] we would be willing to look at that.”

Jared Gnam is a freelance reporter based in Vancouver. He broke into the world of journalism by covering the Stanley Cup riot in 2011.

Food bank use in Canada

  • 1 in 8 Canadian families struggle to put food on the table.
  • 32% of the people requiring food assistance are children.
  • 25% of food bank users are immigrants.
  • 16% of people in need of food assistance have income from recent or current employment.
  • 79,000 people each month access a food bank for the first time.
  • Almost 40% of food bank clients have a diploma, degree, or higher.
  • On average, people in the city core who use food assistance programs do so for two years.

Source: Food Banks Canada

Food waste in Canada in 2014

  • Total waste: $31 billion
  • On farm: $3.1 billion
  • Transport and distribution: $1.2 billion
  • Restaurants and hotels: $2.8 billion
  • Processing: $6.2 billion
  • Retail: $3.1 billion
  • Home $14.6 billion

Source: Value Chain Management International

Food waste globally

According to the United Nations, nearly a third of all food produced globally is wasted; that’s 1.2 billion tons of wasted food a year. North America wastes the most food, at almost 660 pounds per person per year.