This is our second look at food insecurity in the Tri-Cities. To read our previous story, click here.
It’s a little before 10 a.m. on Sunday and the Leigh Square waystation looks like the island of misfit food.
Spread over a couple rooms each the size of a corner store, volunteers sort through unattractive oranges, misshapen peppers and limes that have been snubbed more times than Glenn Close.
These are the grocery store rejects. Good, tasty food destined for the landfill because of its oddness and ugliness; or at least, it would be headed to the landfill if not for the people in Leigh Square.
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People’s Pantry is based on the principle of cheating the dumpster. Volunteers pull up at Costco and four different Save-On-Foods stores and grab between 1,500 and 2,000 kilograms of bread, produce, and dairy, meat, cereal and juice approaching its best-before date each and every week.
Like movie crooks after a heist, the volunteers rendevouz in a couple cramped rooms to inspect the day’s take and see how much can be salvaged. It turns out, most of it.
There’s nothing wrong with these, volunteer and board member Alice Hale notes, turning her attention to ripe plums and nectarines that will go to hungry seniors, single-parents and at-risk youth across the Tri-Cities.
A child of a child of the Depression, Hale was instilled with a moral imperative to clear her plate. Discussing the prospect of 2,000 kilograms of food being trashed, she appears to cringe.
“My dad would turn in his grave,” she says. “You see the need. It’s visceral.”
On Sunday morning there’s six volunteers working steadily in a room. One volunteer discusses a kitchen renovation. Dance music plays softly from a cellphone between two friends sorting through a mound of strawberries. And then, things pick up.
“Excusemepardonme,” a voice calls as a blurry figure sweeps past produce while hefting a tub of food. “One way, my way, the only way.”
This is T.K. Andrews.
“She keeps everybody going,” Hale says admiringly.
Executive director Pam Eberl nods.
“I can’t get her to sit down,” Eberl agrees.
Allegedly, Andrews works 20 hours a week, which is a bit like saying the Stop sign has evenings off.
“I pretty much live here,” Andrews says.
“TK was a single mom that was coming to get bread,” Eberl recalls. “I said, ‘Oh, I’m looking for volunteers.’ She said: ‘I’m so bored with this COVID stuff, please let me help.’”
Andrews is operations co-ordinator. With her back to the meat freezer, she introduces the crew to a young volunteer who’ll be starting in two weeks.
“Be warned, I’m crazy,” she tells him. “If you can get along with crazy, you’ll be just fine.”
Andrews seems to function as equal parts operations co-ordinator and freelance motivator.
“This is a never-ending, grueling job and I love you for all that you do,” she tells one volunteer.
She tailors hampers according to the current supply of meat (“It’s like gold,” she says.) while accounting for allergies and dietary restrictions. When handing out an abundance of a certain fruit or vegetable, she often tucks in a recipe to help people who might need help in the art of cooking.
“We have one family that has three generations and nine people,” she says.
Later, Eberl talks about the time Andrews came in on her day off – which was also Andrews’ birthday.
“I got a phone call saying: ‘Don’t be mad at me, but . . . “
Andrews offers an explanation but no regret.
“I could not, in good conscience with their being no space and nobody knowing what was going on, leave the volunteers to figure it out on their own,” she says. Later, she offers an adage: “It is said if you want anything done the easy way, don’t get TK to do it.”
Approaching retirement after 33 years working for an oil company, Hale was looking for a place to volunteer when she heard about the People’s Pantry.
She’d volunteered at Coquitlam library but this was something different with a whole new set of challenges.
“It’s like a startup,” Hale says.
What a time to start up
“Best-before is not an expiry date,” says People’s Pantry Food Recovery Society executive director Pam Eberl.
Eberl says those words like they were engraved on a tablet.
Best-before is not an expiry date.
That date, Eberl emphasizes, doesn’t mean food can’t be eaten. It’s simply a manufacturer’s stamp indicating a breakfast cereal or a jug or orange juice won’t be at its “optimal taste.”
That lack of optimal taste is one of the reasons for food waste in Canada – an amount roughly equivalent to 350,000 blue whales, Eberl notes.
Recognizing that the Tri-Cities had food to eat as well as hungry people to eat it, People’s Pantry made it their mission to get that food and those people in the same room.
In the spring of 2020 the People’s Pantry was set to launch.
“All of a sudden, boom, COVID hit,” Eberl says. “We hit the ground running.”
They were doing charitable work but there was one problem: they weren’t a charity.
Charity begins . . .
With a wave of job losses intensifying the already-existing food insecurity throughout the region, there wasn’t time to wait until People’s Pantry became a registered charity.
The New View Society, a Port Coquitlam charity that works with people with severe and persistent mental health challenges, became a “fiscal sponsor” of People’s Pantry, explains New View Society executive director Tiffany Melius.
The arrangement allowed funds to flow from United Way to New View Society and over to the People’s Pantry, Melius notes.
“Essentially, we were just an intermediary,” she says.
At first, People’s Pantry was distributing bread and some leftover items, Eberl notes.
“Every week we had a little bit more,” she says. “And then it just exploded in about November.”
Now with 25 volunteers packing hampers for 60 households, People’s Pantry has experienced “exponential growth,” she says.
“We’re starting a waitlist, which kills me,” she adds.
Along with individual pickups, People’s Pantry supplies food to several groups including New View Society clients with limited incomes.
For Helen Uyi-Osagie, a New View Society housing manager who distributes that food, the arrangement has been a boon.
“This is a great opportunity for them to have healthy choices that they wouldn’t normally be able to afford,” she says.
They pick up meat, fruit and vegetables and go to houses across the Tri-Cities. Having cold fruit to offer during the heat wave was very important, according to Uyi-Osagie.
People on disability often choose food that’s cheap and easy to prepare, Melius notes.
“They choose what they can afford, not necessarily what’s healthy for them,” Melius says.
They’re helping people but Uyi-Osagie says there’s still more need to be met.
“If we can get more, we will be able to serve more. We have people to feed.”
People’s Pantry eventually formed partnerships with Immigration Link, CityReach Care Society, Day 2 Day Halal Market and Restaurant and School District #43.
“The more organizations that know about us, the more food I can rescue,” Eberl reasons.
They recruited volunteers and managed to wrangle enough food to meet the demand. Of course, every time they met the demand, the demand seemed to grow, Hale notes.
“We can only support 60 families with the amount of manpower that we have right now,” Eberl says. “If I could clone TK . . . I’d be able to do more.”
On the edge
A lot of people live “on the edge of food security,” according to Ione Smith, a director with Upland Agricultural Consulting.
About 15 percent of Tri-Cities residents are food insecure, according to Smith.
Analyzing the Tri-Cities based on factors ranging from housing affordability and guaranteed income to social inclusion and meal programs, Smith reasons that each municipality has room for improvement.
“We found that overall, you’re all kind of not doing a great job,” Smith said during a Port Coquitlam council meeting. “I think that’s really par for the course across British Columbia.”
While Port Coquitlam is a living wage employer, there are limits to what city governments can do to assuage poverty, responded Mayor Brad West.
It’s “deplorable” that Canadians on social assistance are left in poverty, West said.
“Most of those levers don’t exist at the municipal level,” he explained.
Approximately 58 percent of food produced in Canada – about 35.5 million tonnes – goes to waste.
That waste is the crux of food insecurity, according to Port Coquitlam Coun. Glenn Pollock.
“I think it boils down to: there’s hungry people and there’s food going to waste. End of story,” he said.
While it may not be fair that the issue of food insecurity is being downloaded to local governments, the fact is that it is being downloaded, Smith said. And there are concrete steps cities can take, she noted. Allowing food trucks into more neighbourhoods could help people with mobility challenges.
Smith also noted that groups like the People’s Pantry need support, including a centralized location.
Location, location, location
By 11 a.m. the parking lot outside People’s Pantry is slightly cooler than the storeroom.
“This is a hot box,” Eberl says. “No air conditioning, no heat in here.”
Still, she says it with affection.
“One of the things that we are seeking is a new home,” Hale adds. “We have this place – courtesy of United Way and the [Port Coquitlam] council – until the end of the year. Then we have to get out.”
Finding a centrally located space that meets their needs could be a challenge, Hale acknowledges.
“It’s a tough one,” Hale says. “To find a space in the Tri-Cities that has low or no rent, that can house our equipment.”
There are frustrations with the work. Andrews talks about being yelled at by people who want to dictate times and demand items.
“And when I’ve had days where I want to just punch walls . . . I see that.”
She’s talking about a letter hanging on her office wall. It’s from a young person who got out of a toxic relationship, in part, because of help from the People’s Pantry.
“Those are the stories that I just love,” Eberl agrees.
She talks about the people who start out receiving hampers and hang around to volunteer. She talks about the regulars who, after weeks or months of receiving hampers, show up one day and tell her, “’We’re OK.’”
“I’m like, ‘That’s awesome. OK, next?”