Inside Food Rescue: Where It All Starts

First in an ongoing series on Food Rescue.  

We meet Michelle Coyne, Second Harvest’s Food Donor Relations Coordinator, in a large supermarket in east Toronto. It’s an unusual place to have an interview, but it’s perfect if you’re talking about food rescue. After all, this is where a lot of Second Harvest’s rescued food comes from.

“We receive a lot of food from grocery stores like this one,” says Coyne. “as well as from food manufacturers and distributors. We even get some donations from restaurants and hotels on occasion.”

As we take a turn down the aisles, each neatly packed with brightly coloured cans and packages, Coyne explains that many of the items we’re seeing will make their way to Second Harvest’s warehouse and trucks sooner or later – from canned goods to dried pasta, crackers, peanut butter, cereal, nuts, rice, coffee, spices and everything in between.

But the most common foods Second Harvest rescues are the ones we pass in the produce section and refrigerated aisles; that is, fresh food – things like yogurt, bread, fruit, vegetables and even meats.

That’s a big part of what makes Second Harvest unique, says Coyne. Unlike many hunger relief charities, Second Harvest deals mostly in fresh, perishable foods. It’s the hardest kind of food for agencies to acquire, and can be hugely beneficial for the people who receive it.

“A lot of people living in poverty can’t access fresh food because it’s too expensive,” she says. “And many people who go to a food bank or shelter are getting only one proper meal a day, so we want to make sure that meal has as much nutrition as possible.”

“A lot of people living in poverty can’t access fresh food because it’s too expensive”

One of the challenges in dealing in fresh food is getting it out quickly, says Coyne. If a bin of lettuce comes in, for instance, the Second Harvest team needs to go into action right away to get it sorted and distributed to those who need it.

“We are always having to think about not only the quality of the food but also getting it out in short amounts of time.”

Still, you’d be surprised by the amount of food that can be rescued. One bad apple rarely spoils the whole bunch, and even meats can be donated to Second Harvest as long as they’re frozen before their “best before” date.

The question is: why does this food need rescuing in the first place? Why is there so much perfectly good surplus food?

“There are a few reasons,” says Coyne. “Sometimes the packaging is damaged. Or the packaging has changed and the manufacturer doesn’t want to keep the old packaging on the shelves for marketing reasons. Other times it’s just close to its ‘best before’ date and can’t be sold.”

But Coyne is quick to point out that “best before” dates hardly ever speak to an item’s quality, and can often be misinterpreted by consumers. The “best before” date actually marks the date at which the item is at its absolute freshest, she says, but most foods will stay good well after that date has come and gone.

“These dates are determined by the retailer or manufacturer as the most conservative dates possible,” she says, “but they’re really just suggestions from the retailer of when they want to sell the item by, and they often have nothing to do with edibility or quality.”

As we finish talking, we’ve reached the end of the supermarket, and seen thousands of foods along the way. Most of those foods will be sold. Some will be thrown away. But, thanks to Second Harvest, many will be rescued and delivered to people who need them. Not only does this kind of work help relieve hunger in Toronto communities, it also helps reduce waste and promotes a positive environmental footprint.

That, says Coyne, is why food donors support Second Harvest in the first place.

“In my experience, people who work in the food industry love food. They love the products they produce, and they don’t want to see them thrown away. When they know that, with Second Harvest’s help, good, surplus food can get to people in need, donating becomes an easy decision for them.”

Check back soon for more in this series on food rescue. Next time we’ll take a look at who’s on the receiving end of Second Harvest’s work.