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Tiny B.C. island community’s answer to climate change? Feed everyone

Quadra Island volunteers combing discarded food for nutrition, getting it to those who need it
Food waste lines the edge of the tipping building at Cedar Grove Composting on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

By Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter CANADA’S NATIONAL OBSERVER

Quadra Islander Ramona Boyle is rummaging through cardboard boxes when her friend lets out a triumphant shout.

“Look at this!” exclaims Dood, known by a single moniker similar to Madonna, plucking a package of thick-cut bacon from a box and waving it in the air.

“This normally costs at least 15 bucks.”

Boyle peers into the box filled with various packages of frozen meat.

“There must be hundreds of dollars worth of food in here!” she replies.

The pair, members of the Quadra Island Climate Action Team (I-CAN), are appraising their first haul for a new project to tackle climate change and food insecurity in their rural community.

The group has teamed up with the two grocery stores on the island off Campbell River and a local health food business to launch the Quadra food recovery program, which aims to keep edible food from being sent to garbage dumps.

It’s a win-win situation all around, said Boyle.

The stores don’t have to pay to truck unsellable but potentially edible food off the island to distant landfills. Instead, it can be put to use feeding island residents and animals or nourishing local gardens.

Doing so will boost food security in the community by offsetting the steep cost of food — a pre-existing issue aggravated by COVID for the ferry-dependent community at the end of the supply chain.

It will also reduce the significant greenhouse gas emissions generated by transporting food waste off Quadra and south down Vancouver Island to the closest available waste station in Cumberland. The nearest landfill in Campbell River is already maxed out.

“Climate change is making us all more vulnerable when it comes to food supply,” Boyle said.

“The idea behind the program is to improve the island’s self-sufficiency and a circular economy as much as possible.”

Food and other organics account for 30 per cent of the total waste sent to regional landfills, according to Comox Strathcona Waste Management. It takes up space in landfills and produces methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas fuelling climate change.

Across the country, nearly 60 per cent of food produced in Canada — or 35.5 million tonnes — is lost and wasted annually at every stage of the supply chain, according to Second Harvest, a national food rescue organization.

That waste generates the equivalent of 56.5 million tonnes of CO2 emissions each year. Yet 32 per cent of food waste, or 11.2 million tonnes, is avoidable or edible and could be redirected to help feed the 5.6 million people who are food-insecure in Canada.

Grocery stores often discard food because it’s bruised, too small or imperfect, packaging is damaged or because items are past the “best before” date, though they are often still edible, Boyle said.

I-CAN volunteers have arranged to pick up food items from island retailers twice a week before sorting and freezing necessary items in preparation for community distribution at two central locations once a week, Boyle said, adding the group hopes to involve restaurants and resorts in the program as summer approaches.

Anyone and everyone can come “shop” for what they can use, regardless of their financial situation, she stressed. What’s on offer will vary each week but is likely to include frozen meat, deli products, dairy items, baked goods, fruits and vegetables.

The program will complement the work of the Quadra Food Bank but allows anyone to stretch their grocery budget while doing something positive for the environment, she said.

Community groups can also get food set aside for their programs, and individuals who can’t make it to the distribution sites can arrange dropoffs at more convenient locations.

Boyle anticipates some food will be diverted to cook the weekly seniors’ lunches at the local legion.

The program will also offer food to the more remote outer islands, like Read and Cortes, that suffer even greater food security concerns.

A food pickup is already organized for a volunteer group on Read that prepares meals for homebound seniors so they can age in place on the island, Dood said.

Food not fit for humans will be set aside for farmers on the island to feed their pigs, chickens, goats and ducks, Boyle said.

Any leftover organics will be provided to gardeners for composting to grow their own food, and packaging materials will be recycled, diminishing the island’s waste stream even further, she added.

The biggest producers of surplus food or waste are hesitant to donate it because it’s perceived to be more costly and riskier than disposing of it, Second Harvest research suggests.

The lack of financial incentives, fear of legal liability, policies that discourage donations, inadequate co-ordination with food rescue organizations, undeveloped distribution systems, and the notion that it’s more difficult to donate rather than dump food impedes food recovery.

But every province and territory has legislation that protects organizations from liability when donating food in good faith. The province’s Donor Encouragement Act protects B.C. businesses, non-profit groups and volunteers from legal damages from the consumption of donated food as long as it’s fit to eat, Boyle said.

The retail sector has the highest concentration of businesses diverting surplus food for donation, although there’s significant room for improvement, Second Harvest research suggests.

Food retailers produce less waste than most food industry players, generating about four per cent of Canada’s total food waste, while the hotel and restaurant sector generates around nine per cent.

Production, processing and manufacturing stages combined are responsible for the lion’s share, totalling 70 per cent. And private households are responsible for a shocking 14 per cent of food in landfills.

Helping to load food boxes into Boyle’s vehicle for Quadra’s food recovery program, Rob Pain, manager of Tru Value Foods in Quathiaski Cove, said the cost savings associated with donating food are moderate.

“It reduces the necessity to have our garbage dumped because we are being charged for that.”

But there are social and health benefits involved in diverting unsellable but edible food into the community, Pain added.

“We can help sort the products to make sure those that still have life in them are finding a good home,” he said.

If food is simply tossed out, there’s no determination about what’s safe to eat or not, he said.

Some residents search the store’s dumpster for food, which could be bad, contaminated from other garbage, or exposed to outdoor heat or weather, Pain said.

“There’s lots of people out there that need support, but this saves them from collecting food in unsafe ways.”

Boyle said she’s connected with folks who rely on the store dumpsters to eat and is making arrangements to get them food regularly.

But the food recovery program will ensure other vulnerable people won’t have to resort to such extremes, she said.

“We have people in their 90s who are struggling with food security, and they aren’t able to climb into a dumpster to get it.”

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