In a chilly but bustling warehouse not far from the Nanaimo waterfront, Abby Sauchuk opens a bin to see what’s inside.
It turns out to be a mixture fruit and veg, mostly a big armful of healthy-looking kale, but also some apples and a tomato that appears to have lost its will to live.
“The tomato’s not OK, but the apples are fine,” Sauchuk declares.
The volunteers who sort the food donated to Loaves and Fishes never know what’s going to be in the bins that pour into the warehouse each day. Think of the plastic totes — they’re small enough for one person to lift — as a food bank’s version of a Kinder Surprise, the contents unknown until they’re cracked open.
That’s due to the food bank’s business model: Instead of shopping for the groceries that fill its shelves, it takes whatever it is given.
“We don’t usually buy food,” says Sauchuk, the non-profit’s director of development.
Instead, Loaves and Fishes relies on food donated by its 30 grocery partners, perfectly good fare that would otherwise be chucked in the dumpster before it had a chance to go bad.
“We use the crisis of food waste to solve the crisis of food insecurity” is the way Sauchuk puts it.
The key, she says, is to make it easier to give food to Loaves and Fishes than to toss it in that dumpster. That means being reliable. “We show up on time and we do what we say we’re going to do.”
The non-profit doesn’t let donations stack up on grocers’ busy loading docks and isn’t picky about what it accepts.
Every day, Loaves and Fishes’ fleet of five-tonne trucks makes the rounds of those loading docks, dropping off empty bins and picking up full ones. “The only day we don’t go is Christmas Day.”
Volunteers, about 200 of them rotating through each month, then sort the contents of the bins at the warehouse. About 80 per cent is deemed fit for consumption. The rest goes to area farmers as compost and livestock feed. “We don’t give people anything we wouldn’t take home to eat,” Sauchuk says.
Much of it goes to the charity’s 10 Nanaimo distribution centres, mostly churches, and its Port Hardy food bank, where hungry people can choose the food they want.
Loaves and Fishes also serves over 30 communities scattered all over Vancouver Island, and more than 100 non-profits, schools, other food banks and Indigenous communities.
All the food, including delivery, is free to the recipients. Last year, $6.5-million worth was distributed, including $2.2-million worth that went to other organizations.
Loaves and Fishes is also the Vancouver Island distribution hub for Food Banks B.C., farming out entire tractor-trailer loads of products donated from a single source. On this day, the five-metre-tall shelves are stacked ceiling-high with tortilla chips.
Again, the idea is to seize the opportunity, taking food when it becomes available.
When the pandemic hit, Loaves and Fishes jumped on good, perishable products that had been destined for eateries that could no longer use them. At one point, that meant 9,000 dozen eggs a week.“The restaurants closed and the eggs had to go somewhere,” Sauchuk says.
She and her husband spent their wedding anniversary driving an egg-stuffed SUV to one of the Island’s remoter communities.
It all makes for a big logistical challenge as the donated food flows in, gets sorted, then goes out the door as fast as possible.
“We have to be a food pipe, not a food bank” is the way Sauchuk puts it. “By operating this way, we are able to provide over $5 worth of food for every $1 donation we receive.”
Where does the money come from? In part, from you. Thanks to the tremendous generosity of readers, Loaves and Fishes was one of a dozen or so Vancouver Island food banks to get a grant from the Times Colonist Christmas Fund this year.
That’s not the way the TC charity usually does it. Usually, all the donations collected through the newspaper are distributed by the Salvation Army and the Mustard Street Street Church to people they deem most in need during the holidays.
For the past couple of years, though, readers have been so generous that there has been enough money to fund other organizations, too.
That’s good because, thanks to inflation, the pressure on food banks has risen, too.
If you can help, it would be greatly appreciated.
HOW TO DONATE
• Go to our fundraising page on the Canada Helps website, which is open 24 hours a day and provides an immediate tax receipt.
• Or mail a cheque to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund, 201-655 Tyee Road, Victoria, B.C. V9A 6X5.
• You can also use your credit card by phoning 250-995-4438 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday.