From food shares to small producers and how they prepare thousands of meals a week
Meet some of the people bringing food to Victorians—for free
By Jolene Rudisuela, Capital Daily, June 3, 2022
Six days a week, big white delivery trucks pull in and out of a grey-brown warehouse in Esquimalt. Four garage doors wide and bordering a trampoline park, it’s an unassuming location for one of the Capital Region’s key hubs for feeding the region: the Mustard Seed’s Food Security Distribution Centre.
Those trucks contain thousands of pounds of produce and perishable food items that Greater Victoria’s grocery stores aren’t able to sell—whether it be because of bruising, damaged packaging, looming expiry dates, or too much stock—which will go on to feed over 45,000 people a month, distributed amongst dozens of agencies, schools, and First Nations.
It’s a massive haul: 10,000 pounds a day.
But first, it needs sorting.
A collective approach to food security
Providing free, nutritious food to thousands of Victorians is not a simple task, but it is one that a whole network of people and agencies collaborate on together each day to accomplish.
The ingredients come from all over the Capital Region—not just from grocery stores, but also from farms and urban farmers—while dozens of organizations work tirelessly to prep and hand out meals to their patrons.
It’s a hidden community scaffolding that Kara Udell, executive director of the Capital Region Food Share Network, knows well.
Founded in 2013, the Food Share Network came about as a collaborative effort of more than 40 community groups to bolster food security in Greater Victoria. It links food banks, donors, community centres, Indigenous organizations, and other community groups, and operates on the principles of “empowerment, dignity and respect.”
Victoria has one of the highest numbers of non-profits per capita, so before the network was formed, organizations were directly competing for food, donations, and other essentials. “You can imagine that it was a pretty competitive game in order to get the supports that we needed,” Udell said.
“There’s been a cultural shift in how our community approaches food, food security, because we’re working together. We work together to develop food education, we work together to track resources, and to advocate for the change that needs to take place in our region so that we don’t have 50,000 people in a very wealthy region going hungry every year.”
The 13,500-square-foot Food Rescue Distribution Centre on Viewfield Road has been a key part of the network since it opened in 2017. Owned and operated by The Mustard Seed in partnership with the Food Share Network, the centre helps grocery stores vastly reduce their food waste and quickly redistributes that food throughout the community.
A total of 67 agencies, including nearly every food bank in Greater Victoria, schools, community organizations, and First Nations, have signed on to be a part of the network.
They each pay a small fee to cover The Mustard Seed’s operating expenses and pick up their share of the donated food.
“It’s transformed what’s being served at community meals,” Udell said. “It’s transformed what it means to go to the food bank. Now, you’re no longer going and getting just your can of beans and tuna, it’s a living hamper full of lettuce and produce—and meat and dairy when we’re lucky.”
As an organization with one of the largest meal programs in the region, Our Place Society relies on a combination of avenues to make sure their fridges and pantries are well stocked each day.
They receive food from the Food Share Network, and also fresh produce from Farmlands Trust on the peninsula, among other farms.
At their Pandora Avenue location, they’ve planted a small rooftop garden, and also grow vegetables at a greenhouse and raised beds at New Roads Therapeutic Recovery Community.
The donated food represents about 20 to 25% of the food used by Our Place.
The rest has to be purchased, which is where monetary donations to the society come in. Proteins and dairy, especially, are rarely donated and need to be bought.
Brian Cox, Our Place food services manager, says when he started in this role 30 years ago, each organization was very siloed, but the growing collaboration has been invaluable, even beyond the Food Security Network.
“Like if there’s a surplus of something, we can get on the phone and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got [extra] lettuce, would you like some?’ Then they’ll trade me for some tomatoes—things like that.”
He says Our Place even occasionally gets donations from nearby businesses of muffins they didn’t eat or sandwiches that went untouched.
There’s a lot of goodwill in the neighbourhood, he adds, and each of these donations add up to allow the organization to spend more money in other health-related areas of its work.
About 900 meals are served a day at the Pandora location, but Cox also coordinates sending out about 300 hot and cold meals or ingredients daily to other shelters operated by Our Place.
For the most part, they serve easily recognizable comfort food like soups, stews, casseroles, pasta, and salad, because as Cox says, “healthy food is only healthy if it is eaten.”
“The fact that we have this ability to provide these things, you know, keep people alive, hopefully getting them to a point, health wise, where they possibly can make their own decisions,” he said.
“You really cannot make a good life choice when you’re fighting every day to eat… We’re here seven days a week, three meals a day—it’s sort of one thing they don’t have to worry about, and hopefully it [benefits] their overall health.”
The small producers
About eight years ago, Allan Murr invented pyramid-shaped aeroponic planters to grow produce in a small space.
It started as an idea on a coffee shop napkin, he said, reasoning that a pyramid shape would allow for more plants per square foot than what was then on the market. However, “it wasn’t a big hit at the time,” he said.
Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, though, Murr discovered the perfect use for his unique planters as supply chain slowdowns moved the municipal dialogue towards growing more food within the region.
Soon, Murr had land at Government House, volunteers through non-profit VIRCS (Victoria Immigrant & Refugee Centre Society), and seedlings provided by the City of Victoria.
By year two, Murr fully assumed control, registering the charity Harvest and Share with the aim of providing fresh produce to vulnerable community members.
He’s now in his third year of delivering to seven local food banks and community kitchens, like Our Place, The Mustard Seed, and Rainbow Kitchen.
“I want to provide food that’s actually fresher and still live to the food banks,” he said. “It should be fresher than what the grocery stores get because they still have to wait for their lettuces and greens from [the US].”
Murr has 28 planters which produce just under 4,000 plants at a time.
Currently he has lettuce, parsley, swiss chard, and chives in the system, but as they are harvested and the weather warms up, he’ll start to add dwarf tomatoes, basil, bok choy, and arugula.
Harvest and Share grows from April to September, but Murr has been experimenting with grow lights and plans to fundraise for a shipping container where he can grow all year round.
Meeting a growing need
One of Murr’s drop off locations is the Community Fridge located at 2725 Rock Bay Ave. Modeled after similar initiatives in Canada and the US, it is filled with donated fresh foods and pantry staples that can be taken for free by community members.
“I know for a fact that the fridge fills and empties several times a day. It’s utilized a ton,” said Elora Adamson, an organizer with Community Food Support. “And it could probably have five times, 10 times, 20 times more food that goes through in a day and it would still be used by people who need it.”
Outside the fridge, Community Food Support also delivers hampers to 85 homes each Tuesday. This food comes from the Food Share Network, but also six grocery stores that donate specifically to the group.
It’s heartening to be able to help so many people each week, Adamson says, but there are still so many more families that could use help.
“We feel that because every month we do our sign-up for deliveries, we turn people away,” she said, adding that they’ve had to cap deliveries at 85 because they don’t currently have the capacity to do more.
This is something that most organizations are feeling, Udell said. While the system to get food to vulnerable community members has become more efficient than ever, there is still much more that could be done.
“The dream is always that the emergency food side won’t be necessary anymore—emergency food meaning things like food banks,” she said. “But for now, we have the opportunity to move away from that state of chaos, that frantic worry about whether or not there’s going to be enough food to feed the people that show up.
“I think that the more we work together as a region, the more that we connect and share, the closer we get to meeting the food needs of the region.”