Local grassroots efforts to redeploy surplus food now helping 130 agencies

A volunteer-led group supporting people going hungry has rescued $10 million worth of unused food since it started three years ago.

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A volunteer-led group supporting people going hungry has rescued $10 million worth of unused food since it started three years ago.

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That’s equivalent to more than 52,000 meals a month, said Jim Collins, who founded Harvest Hands in St. Thomas with his daughter Amy and wife Jacintha in early 2020.

The grassroots effort began with Collins’ church group in the city, supporting about a dozen families facing food insecurity.

“I went to pick up some food down in Windsor, and I had this thought, ‘There must be more that we can do,’” he said.

Collins put out a call to growers, processors and retailers in the region for surplus food. “And to my amazement,” he said, “they were really happy to get rid of the product.”

Jim Collins, founder of Harvest Hands food distribution center in St.  Thomas, holds a package of donated pancakes being stored inside a large freezer.  (Calvi Leon/The London Free Press)
Jim Collins, founder of Harvest Hands food distribution center in St. Thomas, holds a package of donated pancakes being stored inside a large freezer. (Calvi Leon/The London Free Press)

Soon, the number of partners donating their leftovers multiplied, and a food distribution center in St. Thomas was born. In 2021, it expanded from its 260-square-metre (3,000-square-foot) space at Grace Hall to its 1,500 square meter facility at 122 Edward St.

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With more than 100 volunteers and 23 drivers, the charity stores, processes, packages and delivers unused food across Southwestern Ontario, from Chatham-Kent as far as Oshawa. It serves a network of more than 130 partners, including food banks, missions, shelters and seniors’ groups.

The figures suggest the need is there and growing.

Around 5.8 million Canadians experience food insecurity, according to a study released last year by University of Toronto. At the same time, nearly 60 per cent of food produced in Canada – 33.5 million tonnes – is wasted each year, according to Second Harvest, the country’s largest food rescue organization.

At Harvest Hands, the demand for its food assistance jumped 35 per cent between 2021 and 2022, Collins said.

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It’s not just people sleeping rough in need. The face of hunger has changed dramatically during the pandemic, he said.

Food insecurity is becoming a reality for more people, whether it’s someone who has lost their job or is on a fixed income, Collins said. “They have to choose between heating, or maybe renting, and food.”

Even some volunteers are feeling the pinch of inflation, he said, which is why the charity recently launched a program that rewards them time with crates of food they can take home.

Harvest Hands is entirely volunteer-run and dependent on donations to cover its expenses, which Collins estimates to be $30,000 a month. The organization does not use government funding, he said.

“We believe it’s the community’s job to take care of the community,” Collins said, adding government funding also often comes with “strings attached” and is not sustainable in the long term.

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For many volunteers, most retired, Harvest Hands offers a sense of purpose.

Harvest Hands volunteer Peggy Ruby pushes a trolley of surplus food that will be redistributed to agencies in Southwestern Ontario.  (Calvi Leon/The London Free Press)
Harvest Hands volunteer Peggy Ruby pushes a trolley of surplus food that will be redistributed to agencies in Southwestern Ontario. (Calvi Leon/The London Free Press)

“We retired and really didn’t have anything to do. It makes us feel good to help other people eat,” said Marion Garbutt, who volunteers with her husband every weekday.

“It’s a wonderful thing” to give your time to someone with a need, whether it’s clothing, food or friendship, said 79-year-old Shela Henderson, who joined the effort in 2020.

“I’m going to be 80 next month. You don’t stop because you’re getting old.”

While the charity has required a lot of hard work, Collins is encouraged by the number of out-of-province visitors asking how they can replicate its model.

”We’re working on putting together a manual to try to convey some of those things. . . because there is really no limit to the amount of food out there. It’s just, how do you get it from the bulk quantity back into the hands of the people?

As Harvest Hands continues to expand, bringing in more equipment and a commercial kitchen, its team encourages people in the region to get involved.

“We don’t say no to volunteers,” said Amy Collins, describing the volunteers as a community.

“It’s so beautiful to be a part of. This town, when the arms are open to you, you feel it.”

To volunteer or learn more about Harvest Hands, visit harvesthands.ca.

[email protected]

twitter.com/CalviatLFress

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada

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