Island communities see increased food security thanks to ‘rescued’ supplies

The Little Current United Church is a hive of activity as workers and volunteers haul 42,000 of rescued food and hygenic supplies and ready them for distribution. photo by Cody Leeson

LITTLE CURRENT – A hardy group of Island social workers stepped away from their computer keyboards and left their telephones behind to join their colleagues at the Little Current United Church Hall to slug some 42,000 pounds of rescued food and hygienic supplies into trucks for distribution to 16 Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities across Manitoulin.

“Originally, the food diversion program focussed on our community partners, seven First Nations, four municipal areas and one organization (Manitoulin Family Resources),” explained Noojmowin Teg’s Kristin Bickell, project manager with Local Food Manitoulin and the Child Poverty Task Force. “It has taken a lot of co-ordination to organize this Island-wide,” she said. “We are very fortunate to have an experienced core team.”

Normally, a large component of volunteers would have been on hand to assist with the work of dividing up and distributing the food and other supplies, but restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic have cut those folks out of the mix. “It has really been a challenge without our volunteers,” admitted Ms. Bickell. “Our volunteers have been at this for quite some time now and they have a lot of experience in this work.”

The Noojmowin Teg team was able to fill in the gaps by putting out a request to the many organizations with which they have and continue to partner with, and each supplied a number of willing hands to help make short work of the endeavour.

“Cody Leeson has taken on the co-ordination of the project and he has really risen to the challenge,” said Ms. Bickell.

Mr. Leeson is the child nutrition co-ordinator at Noojmowin Teg Health Centre and his work normally encompasses more presentations and workshops than organizing willing hands and food distribution, but he said he has really enjoyed the change.

“This opportunity came about due to Noojmowin Teg Health Centre’s involvement in redistributing the Northern Fruit and Vegetable Program,” shared Mr. Leeson. That program was centred on the school system and Nooj took over the role when the schools closed. “During a phone call with Alex Boulet of Social Planning Council Sudbury we had discussed the need for more programs like this to continue, as the access to food, ideally, shouldn’t be as challenging as it sometimes is. We were introduced to contacts at Second Harvest via Dr. Joseph Leblanc of NOSM (Northern Ontario School of Medicine), which afforded us access to their rescued foods.”

Rescued foods?

Mr. Leeson explained that rescued foods are those foods that are produced in excess of what the country’s food distribution system actually needs. Most of those foods would be destined for the landfill if not diverted into programs like those of Second Harvest.

“Second Harvest is Canada’s largest food rescue charity with a dual mission of environmental protection and hunger relief,” he quotes from that organization. “Through direct delivery and their online platform FoodRescue.ca, Second Harvest is able to recover nutritious, unsold food from more than 1,200 donors and redistribute it to a broad network of 1,080 social service organizations in Ontario and BC. Second Harvest’s free, essential service helps nourish people through school programs, seniors’ centres, shelters, food banks and regional food hubs. In 35 years, Second Harvest has rescued over 155 million pounds of healthy food, keeping it out of landfills and preventing 192 million pounds of greenhouse gases from entering our atmosphere.”

Thanks to organizations like these, Noojmowin Teg has managed to distribute more than 100,000 pounds of food over the course of the program’s run. “It has helped us to fill a definite need that exists in communities all across the Island,” said Mr. Leeson.

While being bereft of the volunteer contingent presented a significant challenge to the effort, Mr. Leeson noted that there was a decidedly beneficial educational component for many of the organization’s partners who stepped up to provide the sweat equity. “They got a first-hand opportunity to see the scale of the need that is out there and a better understanding of the work that goes into this,” he said.

Mr. Leeson requested a shout out to Mike Wilding at Boarderline and Tammy and Chris Laidley of Laidley’s Stationery for use of their carts, Rob Maguire of Terrastar for use of his pallet jack and Andrew Orr of Orr’s Valumart for his time and use of his forklift in shifting the massive pallets of food and hygiene products out of the transport trucks and around and about the church parking lot.

“In the future we hope to be able to continue the partnership and access refrigerated/frozen goods and again redistribute it through our network of community partners,” said Mr. Leeson. “There are currently no plans set for this as the logistics for refrigerated goods, including the freight and immediate redistribution are more complex.”