The time of the year when food banks receive the most donations of non-perishable foods has just begun, but what few realize is that many food donation centres also welcome fresh produce from local growers, including the hobby gardener.
Community gardens are cropping up everywhere in Metro Vancouver, in unused lots, shared spaces, roof tops and parks, and the increasing price of food has encouraged those with room to spare to grow some produce of their own in whatever space they have. The popularity of food growing is so big that there are waitlists to become part of any of the dozens of community gardens in Vancouver.
Thanks to our temperate climate, Vancouver also happens to be a very hospitable place to grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Zucchini, cucumber, kale, chard and carrots are just part of the cornucopia someone can grow in patch of dirt. While growing your own is a wonderful way to save some cash, connect with the earth and build a community, there is often one issue: too much food.
Depending on how many crops someone plants, some growths can be incredibly prolific and provide literally too much food for one family to consume, and contribute to the present food waste problem. While the easy route is to let whatever you don’t use rot in the compost, or hand it off to relatives, there is a much more vulnerable portion of our population in dire need of fresh, healthy produce.
Most food banks or food drives ask for non-perishable foods for very obvious reasons – they are easy to store, keep for a long time and are often diet staples. But some do accept perishable foods, with limitations.
The Edible Garden Project on the North Shore is one organization purely based on collecting fresh produce from independent growers like residents or community groups. A 2005 report from Vancouver Coastal Health found that there was a lack of access to fresh, local produce for low-income residents on the North Shore, so several community organizations joined together to create Edible Garden, which now runs with four full-time staff and 600 volunteers.
“We probably receive 500 to 1,000 pounds of produce donated from the general public each year. We just got about 100 pounds of potatoes dropped off from an elementary school, and they do that every year,” said Emily Jubenvill, manager of Edible Garden.
Some periods are better than others, says Jubenvill, but in the past they have had strong involvement from community gardeners who have coordinated with all of the gardeners in their community to donate their produce. But still, there is often not enough to feed the demand.
There are three locations on the North Shore where residents can drop off their extra produce, The Harvest Project, North Shore Neighbourhood House and the West Vancouver Community Centre. The food then gets delivered to the Harvest Project, Sage Women’s Safe House, The Food Hub and social housing residents where it is accessible by the people who need it most.
“We’ve been working with the Harvest Project to find out exactly how much we need every week, but there’s always weeks where there is not enough,” says Jubenvill. “We typically sell-out every week, and there’s a lot of programs that would love produce from us but we don’t have enough.”
The project is mostly supplied through residents willing to “grow a row and share a row”, as well as schoolyard gardens and their own half-acre farm.
In Delta, an area which already produces so much of Metro Vancouver’s local food supply, the Earthwise Shared Harvest Project helps to harvest homeowner’s fruit trees and produce before it’s too late. Local Delta farmers and hobby gardeners are much-needed participants in the program, which annually collects over 2,500 pounds of healthy produce for distribution to those in need through the Delta Food Coalition.
The Vancouver Food Bank also accepts individual donations of fresh produce, but their biggest contributions come from the Community Angel Food Runners program which works with grocery stores, restaurants and retailers to take any unused food as long as it complies with the strict guidelines in place. As such, the Food Bank can only take food as part of this program which has:
In order to help encourage people to donate food, Canada and B.C. passed laws in the 90s to regulate and protect food donations. The Food Donation Act protects donors from liability in case their food causes any harm, as long as it wasn’t donated while rotten or with the intent to injure.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control released new guidelines for the donation of food in June 2015, including the classification of food into certain risk factors. The highest risk foods are those which have been processed at home, opened or partially consumed.
“These foods are viewed as being at highest risk because you cannot tell to what extent partially consumed food has been contaminated or under what conditions the food was originally processed and stored,” the guidelines state.
Foods that are unacceptable include unpasteurized dairy products, home-canned vegetables and meats or fish, uninspected wild game, partially consumed foods or foods that have been in a buffet.
Due to the restrictions in place for most perishable food aside from fresh produce, programs like Edible Garden don’t have the capacity to meet the guidelines. When accepting fresh fruits and vegetables, the donation organizations also prefer the food to already be in clean, good condition.
“We really emphasize fresh and clean, and probably the biggest bummer for me is when somebody donates a big dirty plant without taking the time to prep it and clean it well,” Jubenvill says.
As autumn crops ripen and seeds are planted for the spring, perhaps think about growing an extra row for those in need.