It’s growing late in the day when Matt, a Second Harvest driver for the past 11 years, pulls up in front of Evangel Hall Mission, the final social service agency on his route list for the day.

“The food on my truck is different every day and if I have 15 agencies to deliver food to that day, then I have to make sure that I share it evenly with all 15 so that the last place isn’t short-changed,” says Matt. “At the beginning of the day you have so much food you can’t imagine it will all be gone by the end of the day. But it always goes.”

Matt loads his truck every day just after 7 a.m. at the Second Harvest warehouse. As one of seven drivers that deliver rescued food across the city, he says the loading time can be challenging because every driver is trying to choose the food that best meets the needs of the agencies on their respective routes –  “You go around the warehouse keeping specific agencies in mind and thinking about what they would want,” says Matt. “If it’s an after school program, for example, you know they’ll want juice boxes, fresh fruit, granola bars and that sort of thing. You try to build packages for each agency.”

Once fully loaded, Matt hits the road. He spends the entire day navigating the city, fighting traffic and rerouting around road closures to make his deliveries. Often his route also includes donation pick-ups. And sometimes Celeste, Second Harvest’s Distribution Coordinator, radios with a last-minute pick-up that needs to be squeezed into his day.

Although 24 hours notice from a food donor is preferred, a donor who calls day-of with a few skids of food is rarely turned away. For those pickups, Celeste determines not only which driver will be closest to the pick-up but also which driver has the space and will be most likely to use the donation the same day, rather than bringing it back to the warehouse where space is limited. Celeste figures about half of day-of pick-ups get delivered that same day.

Celeste’s day starts even earlier than that of the drivers, as she needs to finalize each route based on pick-up requests. Although each driver is assigned the same area each day, the agencies and pick-ups on their route differ from day-to-day. Then she meets with Matt and the other drivers to review their routes, talk about road closures and shares other important information before the drivers begin loading their trucks.

“I don’t know if you ever cross the finish line because there are so many people out there going without.”

Second Harvest secures more than 7 million pounds of food a year. And, although pick-ups from grocery stores, restaurants and corporate events are often a part of daily routes, the bulk of the food comes from distribution centres and farmers – which result in a far greater amount of fresh, nutrient dense food in the same amount of time it takes a driver to do a single retail pick-up.

Ian Gibbons, Second Harvest’s Programs and Partnerships Manager, says there are a number of reasons that large donations become available from distribution centres.

“It could be that something is damaged in shipping and that it’s cosmetically not appealing from the individual store’s perspective. Or there could just be too much product. In many instances that food would have gone in the landfill, but instead, we’ve developed relationships with the centres who know that if they give us a call the food will be rescued in short order.”

Ian’s job is to build these sustainable long-term relationships – relationships that mean Second Harvest can count on large weekly pick-ups.

The criteria Ian uses to assess food donations is simple; would he eat it? If it’s nutrient dense, such as dairy, produce and protein, Ian says he’ll always say yes as long as it’s not past its best before date and passes the sensory test – it looks good, smells good, and feels good. And while crackers, breads, grains and pastas are the easiest foods to secure, meat is often scarce and is always in high demand by the agencies.

“An ideal food donation is something that we can slow release throughout the week so that it touches each agency and everyone is sharing and benefitting from that donation.”

But he stresses that regardless of the size of the food donation, the need never ends.

“I don’t know if you ever cross the finish line because there are so many people out there going without,” Ian says.

Matt couldn’t agree more. Driving a delivery truck is a tough job but, at the end of every day, he feels rewarded because he can physically see the results of his hard work.

“You know you’re doing something worthwhile and that outweighs the time pressures and stresses of the job. It’s really nice to hear and see how much of a difference this is making.”