Vancouver charity tackles growing food insecurity while preventing waste

Michelle Reining, executive director of Vancouver Food Runners, says the charity is starting to work with businesses that aren't necessarily able to fill an industrial-sized truck with donated food, but still have lots to give. (Shawn Foss/CBC - image credit)
Michelle Reining, executive director of Vancouver Food Runners, says the charity is starting to work with businesses that aren't necessarily able to fill an industrial-sized truck with donated food, but still have lots to give. (Shawn Foss/CBC - image credit)

Vancouver Food Runners don't sell sneakers, but the registered charity's volunteers do run around town, picking up produce that's about to go bad and bringing it to food banks and other non-profits supporting people in need.

Executive director Michelle Reining says amidst the current affordability crisis, which is driving up the cost of housing, child care, gas and groceries, the needs are greater than ever.

By her estimate, more than one in 10 households in Vancouver are struggling with food security.

"Every week it's something a little bit different so there's some creativity," she told CBC on Friday, pointing to a pallet of grapes, tomatoes, potatoes, watermelon and other produce donated by B.C. meal delivery service Fresh Prep.

"When this goes to the organization, the chefs can take it in and they're going to create different meals with this, create different food hampers. This is perfectly good food that will be given back to the community."

Reining's charity was created in 2020 and calls missions — like the one she was on with Fresh Prep — "food rescues."

Drivers with Vancouver Food Runners currently pick up items from 160 food businesses across the city, and drop them off at around 120 non-profits.

The food collected Friday was headed to the Downtown Eastside Food Sovereignty hub and Coho Commissary, which Reining says has been running a meal program with Food Runners for the past three years.

Shawn Foss/CBC
Shawn Foss/CBC

She says the goal is to tackle food waste and food security in one go, using a website and smart phone app to make it easy for businesses to sign up to contribute, and for potential community partners to reach out.

"We're part of a wide range of organizations in Vancouver doing this kind of work," she said.

"We're different in that we use app technology and volunteer drivers. We have about 2,000 volunteers right now."

She says with its volunteers and smaller vehicles, Vancouver Food Runners is starting to work with businesses in the food industry, like hotels, meal prep companies and schools, who wouldn't necessarily be able to fill an industrial-sized truck but still have lots to give.

Bleak situation across Canada

Tammara Soma, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University and research director and co-founder of the Food Systems Lab, says food insecurity is widespread not only in Vancouver, but across the country.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly put a lot of pressure, more pressure on people," she said.

"And inflation is not helping the situation."

Zoom
Zoom

Soma says studies shows people of colour and people with low income tend to be impacted the most, but soaring costs on just about everything in Canada are making it more difficult for middle-class families and students as well, and often charities are forced to pick up the slack.

She says she wants to see more support for farmers, better meal plans in schools, and more financial backing for food banks and non-profits, but also better housing policies so people have money left to eat.

"If our country, our province, our municipalities put food on the table then we can actually solve this problem once and for all, without further burdening the charitable sector," she said.

Charities 'stretched thin'

Reining says much like the general population, non-profits are also feeling the strain of rising operational costs and also struggling to find staff and meet high demand.

"Charities are stretched thin right now," she said.

"We continue to do the work that we do, but there's always more that needs to be done."

She adds that over 58 per cent of food in Canada is being wasted right now — 32 per cent of which is still edible.

She also wants to see government policies that require businesses to redirect surplus food, and more conscious efforts to reduce waste at each step of the supply chain.