EARTH STEWARDS


QUEST FOR FOOD

Feeding the Poor in Vancouver, Canada


By Sandra Thomas, Vancouver Courier
14th March, 2008

Earth Stewards: Quest for Food - feeding the poor in Vancouver, Canada
Earth Stewards: Quest for Food - feeding the poor in Vancouver Canada; chef Peter Aram
The Quest Food Exchange rescues high quality food to stock two remarkable grocery stores catering to Vancouver's poor. Quest chef Peter Aram cooks enough food for 1,000 people per day
Photographer - Dan Toulgoet

Standing in the tiny kitchen of Quest Food Exchange in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, chef Peter Aram has plans for almost a dozen small turkeys sitting on two stovetops.

The turkeys, each the size of a large roasting chicken, will be cooked later that day and packaged for sale at a cost of about $4 each. "A lot of the people down here live in [single room occupancy hotels] and don't have kitchens," says Aram. "If they're lucky they might have a hot plate or a toaster oven. Actually, those are luxuries down here. So what we like to do is precook food so that literally all they have to do is open the bag and eat it."

Aram, a former chef in high-end restaurants in Vancouver, Whistler and New York, cooks enough food daily to feed 1,000 people. But as the chef and food services manager for Quest, he's never sure what ingredients will be available on any given day. That's because Quest Outreach Society salvages myriad ingredients from 343 food suppliers, including wholesalers, airlines and farms. Last year, Quest rescued 2,617 metric tonnes (5.77 million pounds) of quality food headed for landfills and redirected it to feed the hungry. According to Quest, that $8.26 million worth of salvaged food is just one per cent of surplus food that is otherwise thrown away annually in the Lower Mainland.

Quest's food exchange program is so successful it was recognized in 2006 with a $1 million award from Vancity Credit Union, the largest credit union in Canada.

And now the non-profit society wants to expand its food exchange program--not only across the province, but also across the country and around the world. Quest ships food to Africa and South America because it doesn't have the space locally to store everything it collects. The society will launch a capital campaign this spring to turn its $1 million award into $10 million, of which $4.5 million would be dedicated to a warehouse large enough to store and distribute even more food to the hungry.

The Quest warehouse on East Georgia Street at Clark Drive is bustling on a cool February morning. The large back door is open, which allows weak rays of winter sun to backlight a small crew of volunteers working at a variety of tasks. While several men move boxes into the grocery store that fronts the warehouse, two student volunteers sift through a large box of tomatoes, sorting the good from the bad. In a bin for rotten produce located behind the warehouse, a homeless woman sorts through the rejects.

Quest executive director Shelly Wells tries to discourage such activity, but not because she doesn't want people taking the discarded produce home. "We want them to come into the grocery store instead," says Wells.

Quest runs two grocery stores for low-income shoppers. One is in front of the warehouse on East Georgia, and the second is on East Hastings at Gore, from which the society's hot meals are prepared.

Quest began as a small soup kitchen in the Downtown Eastside 16 years ago. Wells began volunteering at the then floundering soup kitchen while running her own public relations business.

"The first day I showed up to volunteer someone said, 'We're in big trouble, can you help us?'" says Wells, who also has a background in community development. "I thought this is a worthy cause, but more could be done."

Working from her home office, Wells asked anyone who would listen to donate food. She spent the next two years making the transition from her public relations company to full-time employee of the Quest Outreach Society. The food exchange program was developed 10 years ago, and the society, including Wells, haven't looked back.

Food is donated for many reasons. In some instances it arrives at Quest in dented cans or damaged packaging, while other products might be within weeks of their expiry date. Produce not pretty enough to adorn the shelf of a major grocery chain, because it's oddly sized or shaped, is welcomed by Quest. Its list of suppliers includes farmers, wholesalers, manufacturers, grocery stores, bakeries, airlines, dairies, coffee importers and candy makers.

Low-income clients, such as seniors, the disabled, single mothers, new immigrants and people struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, are referred to the stores by social-service agencies. Clients are given identification cards to use at the stores.

Walking through the grocery store on East Georgia, Wells explains food is sold at cost, typically for about 30 cents on the dollar. Much of the produce is organic. The variety of dry goods, meat and frozen products changes depending on the food coming in from donors. On this day, the shelves are stocked with cereal, pasta and rice for under $1, while the meat department offers up frozen chicken pastrami, cooked top sirloin steak and pate for prices between $1.50 and $3. Other frozen items include vegetarian offerings from Yves. The dairy counter is stocked with large tubs of yogurt for $1. Organic brown mushrooms sell for $1 a pound while organic tomatoes sell for 67 cents a pound. Nearby, a worker from a social-service agency purchases cases of cheese-and-cracker snack packs for $3 each to give to clients.

The two grocery stores offer far more than staples. In the past, luxury items like star fruit, Belgian chocolates, caviar or Maui-brand marinated ribs have found their way to Quest's shelves. Today the snack area includes Kettle-brand chips and chocolate cupcakes.

Every day, Quest staff pick up 6,000 pieces of bread, which are used in meal programs or sold at the grocery store. "There's a million pieces available every day, and it's all wonderful bread, but we don't have the room for it," Wells says. "We only use one per cent of the food that's available, and we can hardly keep up with that."

No matter how much money a person has on them, Wells promises they'll leave with enough food for several meals. In one case a client arrived with 17 cents to spend on a week's worth of groceries. In another, a mother of three fed her family for a month with $20. Wells credits the grocery store for allowing people the dignity of strolling the aisles and choosing their own groceries.

Clients can also choose culturally appropriate foods. On an average day 400 people shop at the two grocery stores.

The two locations draw different kinds of shoppers. While a typical shopper at East Georgia is a low-income working mother, the Hastings and Gore location sees a lot of homeless people and addicts.

"At the Hastings location they might collect bottles and come in with 10 cents for breakfast and then go and collect some more and come in with money for lunch and that's how they'll work their day," says Wells.

At both locations people with no money can volu,nteer time in exchange for groceries. Wells says any volunteer is welcome to $70 worth of groceries a day, even if they only offer one hour of their time. "It's not about the amount of time they donate, but it's their need for structure," says Wells. "We don't want to be all fee-based, we just need help."

Valerie, who asked that her last name not be used, has been both a client and volunteer at the East Georgia warehouse and grocery store for a year. Valerie, a mature student at Langara College, was referred to the grocery store by a mental health agency. "I've used a food bank before," says Valerie. "But shopping at the store gives me more choice and a lot more dignity. And I get a hamper every time I work."

Divorced and with no children, Valerie says $20 buys "a lot of stuff." She says it's a treat when luxury items like Belgian chocolates or Italian cakes show up on the shelves. "I think most people would be shocked by the prices," she says.

Zsuzsi Fodor, one of a group of students from McMaster University volunteering at Quest for a week, is impressed by the food choices available at the grocery store. The Hamilton-based students are at Quest earning credits for a course called Service Learning. Fodor was particularly happy to see healthier choices such as tofu, soymilk and Kettle-brand chips available to clients. "Those products are pretty high end, and I think the universe is being wonderfully ironic in bringing them here," she says.

Fodor is interested in the environmental benefits of the huge amounts of food salvaged by Quest. She adds the program is one small initiative in the battle against mass consumption.

"It's just too bad anyone has to live off the waste of others," she says. "If you look at the larger social picture this food would be considered waste by the masses."

What might be considered "waste" by some is treated like found treasure by the crew at Quest. Wells is frustrated because there's so much more that can be done, but the society simply doesn't have the room. At the back of the warehouse she points to a small forklift parked in a corner surrounded by boxes. The warehouse is so small and cramped there's no room for the machine to move.

"We have to move everything by hand," says Wells. "It's a bit of a waste."

Wells is confident the forklift will be put to good use once a new warehouse is purchased. When Quest initially applied for the Vancity award, the society hoped the $1 million would pay for a new warehouse. But the reality of the city's real-estate boom quickly set in, says Wells, and now Quest will use the cash as seed money for its ambitious goal to raise $10 million. Once a warehouse is purchased, the remaining $5.5 million will open small distribution centres across the province. A Surrey location is scheduled to open in April.

Earth Stewards: Quest for Food - feeding the poor in Vancouver, Canada; 2,817 metric tonnes of food wererescued in 2007 Earth Stewards: Quest for Food - feeding the poor in Vancouver Canada; Quest Executive Director Shelly Wells
In 2007 Quest rescued 2,617 metric tonnes of quality food headed for landfills, including piles of fresh vegetables Quest Executive Director Shelly Wells notes that luxury items like pita chips and Belgian chocolates accompany staple foods on Quest shelves.

According to financial statements supplied by Quest, the society's revenue in 2007--including public, government and food donations--was $9,071,455. That amount included the $8.26 million in food donations it salvaged last year. The report also lists expenses, which include $500,000 for 17 paid staff, $97,000 for vehicle operation and $101,000 for rent and utilities. In total Quest was over budget by $119,000.

"People are always asking, 'How can we help?'" says Wells. "Right now we can't take any more food--we just don't have the space--but what we need are financial donations. The extent of our goal is to eliminate hunger in B.C. After that our goal is to eliminate hunger in Canada and then on an international scale."

When it comes to feeding the hungry, Quest's numbers are impressive. In 2007 the food exchange assisted 70,000 people a month, up from 55,000 in 2006. Last year Quest served 37,334 hot sit-down meals through its community kitchen partner program and another 1,000 through Quest's hot meal program. Quest also worked with 266 social-service partners that referred almost 4,000 clients to its low-income grocery stores. It provided enough groceries to local food banks to feed 28,000 people a month and provided food for 941 hampers. Quest also shipped enough food to feed 300,000 people a month in South America and Africa through partnerships with non-governmental organizations located within the Fraser Valley.

Quest estimates the food it diverts from landfills reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 3,290 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents per year. About 20 per cent of the food Quest received last year was not edible, such as rotten produce. Of that waste, 408 tonnes was composted and 22 tonnes went to livestock farms. In total, 147 metric tonnes of packaging was recycled in 2007.

Wells shows off the bins parked out back of the East Georgia Street warehouse. Some produce waste is placed in one green bin for a Lower Mainland penitentiary. There the inmates use it to produce compost, which is returned to Quest for distribution to community gardens. Several smaller black bins also hold discarded produce, which is used for compost at UBC. On this day cardboard packaging is being sorted in the back of a truck ready to be recycled.

Wells points towards one standard-sized industrial garbage bin. She's obviously proud that, through its aggressive recycling program, the warehouse contains its daily garbage to that one bin, despite the thousands of pounds of food delivered each day--much of it prepackaged. "We have a zero waste philosophy," says Wells.

Quest's dedication to feeding the hungry while helping the environment made it easy for Vancity's finalist committee to shortlist the society in 2005 for the 2006 $1 million award, says Elisabeth Geller, manager of community programs for the credit union.

"They offer something bold and innovative that really has had a lasting impact in the community," says Geller. "There are three themes the committee looks for when shortlisting a group, and that's how it impacts the economic, social and environmental well-being of a community."

The committee that chooses the finalists for the annual award, which launched in 2000, is made up of nine people: two Vancity board members, two staff members and five members of the public. Once a group of finalists is chosen, Vancity members vote for the non-profit they believe is worthy of the $1 million prize.

"It's staggering to see the number of people hungry in the Lower Mainland, and it's staggering to see the amount of food that's wasted," says Geller. "Their program piggybacks on both environmental well-being and providing people with food. It was a powerful choice for the committee to make and it was easy to shortlist them."

Geller applauds Quest's dream to expand and says while the credit union can't offer the society any more cash, it will support fundraising efforts by including information on Vancity's website and in its member newsletters. Other winners of the award have also used the cash as seed money, including Better Environmentally Sound Transportation (BEST), which won the award in 2001. Geller says the $1 million gave the small cycling advocacy group a financial base from which to build toward its $15 million goal. The group wants to build a greenway for biking, hiking, blading, walking and running, from New Westminster to Vancouver.

"We will support Quest in their quest," says Geller. "We want to see them succeed and we were thrilled to give the award to them."

Besides the Vancity award, in 2006 Quest was honoured with the Canadian Environmental Award from Canadian Geographic magazine and the federal government. Quest was also recognized in the "sustainable living" category because of its impact on the environment and unique approach to tackling hunger issues in the Lower Mainland.

Wells is anxious to expand the program and see Quest rescue more food than it does today.

She's looking to Vancouver Island and is working with Elietha Bocskei of the Victoria-based Homeless Food Security Project.

"Vancouver Island wants us there yesterday," she says. "There's a huge gap in services there."

Bocskei, who also works on contract for the Salvation Army, says Quest fulfills different needs than local food banks do. "I think it's a unique model that offers a lot of elements," she says. "It would be important to also get the community involved as much as possible."

Bocskei says it's too early to know when a food exchange or low-cost grocery store will start in Victoria.

"It's hard to say with community projects," she said. "But we have a group together and we're keen to move forward."

Wells recently attended a meeting in Victoria and was surprised at how great the need there is. "It's gut wrenching," she says. "We have a social and moral obligation to help these people."

Quest Outreach society is not just about rescuing food. Last year the society provided work experience to clients, many with developmental disabilities, from 17 job training agencies.

Kathy Fournier, development and communications manager for Mainstream Association, is a big fan of Quest. Mainstream offers day and residential programs for disabled clients with a broad range of mental and physical problems, including autism. Fournier says Quest not only gives her clients an opportunity to learn job skills within the warehouse as volunteers, but also gives them food subsidies for each shift worked. "So they get groceries for working and they feel useful," says Fournier. "They also receive respect and dignity."

Fournier says her clients are treated like any other employee. And when grocery shopping with their food subsidy, the clients like choosing their own food.

"The whole environment teaches them that everyone works for something," says Fournier. "A lot of our clients have motivational problems, but at Quest their motivations is they're going to work, plus they're going to get food, plus they get noticed and plus they're part of something. That's a huge part of life and I just can't say enough about it."

Fournier notes Quest also serves great food. Quest provided turkey dinners to Mainstream clients last Christmas. The dinners were large, says Fournier, and they were delicious. "It was the best Christmas dinner ever," says Fournier. "The food was home made and it was magnificent. Quest is an incredible group and the best thing about them is they don't know it."

© Vancouver Courier 2008

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