LONDON — Each December, volunteers with the Ark Aid Street Mission in London keep a close eye while sorting food donations. They’re on the lookout for anything that might work well for a holiday dinner — fresh tomatoes or peppers for a sauce, or occasionally whole, decorated cakes.
Most of the food, which finds its way to those in need through the mission’s programming, comes courtesy of the London Food Coalition, a partnership of 24 social service agencies: churches, school nutrition programs, and other community resource centres. The group was spearheaded in 2017 by Doug Whitelaw, executive director of Ark Aid.
“Food insecurity is not a result of an absence of food,” says Whitelaw in a recent video. “It’s an absence of food in the right places. “Using funding from member organizations, the coalition rescues trash-bound food from wholesalers such as Costco, as well as retailers and other food providers, and redistributes it to its members. Rescuing food that would otherwise go to landfill is not a new practice — the London Food Bank does it, as does Second Harvest, which supplies more than 1,000 social service agencies across the province.
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What makes the London Food Coalition different, Whitelaw says, is the grassroots partnership. Each member group redirects some (or all) of its food acquisition budget to finance the coalition's collection activities. They share tasks: Ark Aid operates the van, the Salvation Army’s Centre of Hope facility offers its space, and London InterCommunity Health Centre keeps the books. In 2018, Whitelaw says, the coalition rescued nearly 100,000 kilograms of food from landfills, on a $45,000 budget. This year, it averaged 410 kilograms per day. TVO.org sat down with Whitelaw to find out more about the initiative, which in November won a local community innovation award.
TVO.org: How did the London Food Coalition start?
Doug Whitelaw: Ark Aid has been picking up food for years — all of the food we serve, which this year will be about 30,000 meals, is donated. So, in the middle part of 2016, one of the managers at Costco [in London] said in a staff meeting, “We're throwing out too much good food. Does anybody know where it could go?” One of our volunteers is an employee there — she made sure she was the next person he talked to.
We added them onto our route. The very first day we brought back 1,600 bananas. Now, we'd always had a bit of a food-trading network here in London among the shelters and [other social agencies like] the St Joseph's hospitality center just across the street. They serve breakfast and lunch [and run a] soup kitchen; we do afternoon [the] snack and supper. Stuff is always going back and forth, if anybody’s got extra. So, I thought, okay, we'll just elaborate on that.
Before we knew it, we had about 17 partner agencies. That ran for about six months. Towards the fall, we convened a meeting of the agencies. I said, “This isn't sustainable if we keep doing this just ourselves.”
Everybody already had a food security program, which meant they were already purchasing food. What if we stopped purchasing food and collected it together and diverted, if not all, at least some of the budget they already were spending? Well, that didn't take long to get most people to sign on.
Then, just before Christmas in 2016, it became apparent that Costco wanted what was leaving to be in a refrigerated truck [and suspended the donations].
The InterCommunity Health Centre put one of their community developers on it. Pretty soon she had an in to the city hall, and we talked to them a little bit. So, the city came up with the funds that we needed to get us back in gear with the refrigerated truck. We were able to purchase and put it on the road in October 2017 — about 10 months from the day we got stopped. We've been collecting since then.
TVO.org: What has the impact been?
DW: One agency reported last year that they had a net savings of $4,800. Some agencies are able to do things that they couldn't have done before because they didn't have a budget for it. Some, like us, are able to do better than what they were doing or a little bit more.
At Ark Aid it has helped us serve healthier meals. We have sauces our cook makes up himself, or a lot of times now, instead of serving a muffin that we've picked up for dessert, we're serving a piece of fresh fruit. So, it didn't save us money in the sense that we were already sourcing all of the food that we needed, but it's a healthier mix than what we had.
It has created a bigger sense of partnership among the agencies. So, agencies, we're finding, will know each other better and know what the other one might be doing. They'd say, “Hey, I have this, can you use it?” or, “I'm going to be doing this. Do you know where I could get this?”
TVO.org: The coalition, in partnership with Middlesex-London Health Unit, has also established a donation protocol template that it shares with other communities. What’s that about?
DW: Well of course, you know, whenever you talk about donating food the health issue comes up — that's probably partially why companies are reluctant to give.
We realized in the first half of 2017 that we needed to be proactive. What I was concerned about was that a health inspector would only see a small piece of it and not understand the big picture. And then, I mean, they could have created havoc for us.
But [Middlesex-London Health Unit] were great to work with. We sat with them and explained our model — that really the model is we're not roaming all over town with food perishing. We're going to have a refrigerated truck. They're already inspecting the food’s sources and destination.
They could not find anything in Ontario that was like this project, but found something in British Columbia that was similar, and gave us a printout of its [protocol] as a sort of a template. We developed it from there with them. Now, we have two or three pages of things which we give to donors about what to give and how to give and what not to do.
TVO.org: How will this program make a difference over the holidays?
DW: The thing is not that we serve a Christmas Eve meal, which we do, it's that we're also serving a meal on January 25th. Some of these programs would not exist without this. It makes Christmas every day.