• Kristina de Guzman

Better Together: Food Rescue initiative

A joint effort to reduce food waste & increase food access

Leftovers volunteer Q&A: Gela Cabrera Loa

Jesus Gonzalez Rivas Jr. brings out food donations from Paraiso North.
Photo: Leftovers volunteers

Like many other businesses within the food industry, Paraiso Tropical Latin Food Market is not immune to food waste.

“Food waste has always been a big problem in our store, because there’s a lot of confusion about what is actually consumable and what isn’t,” shares owner Jesus Gonzalez Rivas Jr.

“You have the expiry dates, the best before dates…a lot of the food that can still be consumed customers don’t wanna purchase ‘cause they think that they can’t eat it.

“So a lot of the time, we have been forced to just take those foods off the shelves when they’re completely edible."

Empanada food package
Photo: Rubén Contreras

In the last two years, Gonzalez Rivas Jr. has tried to approach a couple of organizations in an effort to help Paraiso Tropical reduce its food waste, but due to logistical issues, a solution couldn’t quite be reached.

“A lot of customers always told us, ‘You know, you guys should donate your food,’” says Gonzalez Rivas Jr. “But at the time, it was hard to [find] organizations that could take our food.”

Leftovers to the food rescue

In June this year, Gonzalez Rivas Jr. received an email from Garnet Borch, Leftovers Foundation’s City Coordinator in Edmonton, to see if Paraiso Tropical would be interested in taking part in Rescue Food, a Calgary-born initiative which began in 2012 and branched off into Edmonton in 2017. Working with local food vendors and charitable organizations, Leftovers’ goal is to divert unwanted food away from the trash and redirect them to people in need of a meal.

The email led to a phone call. Gonzalez Rivas Jr. gave Borch a heads up that Paraiso’s food might only appeal to a narrow demographic but soon learned that Rescue Food makes every effort to find a home for all donated food.

Borch, who began his role with Leftovers just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, has quite the complex role in brokering between business food donors and service agencies.

“We contact restaurants, bakeries, cafes, grocery stores – anybody that deals with food. If they are having to throw out food, we offer them an opportunity to, instead, donate that food,” Borch says. “And we have a volunteer that comes by, picks up that food and delivers it to a service agency. Those agencies could be pregnancy care centres, homeless shelters, addictions recovery centres, drop-in centres, live-in care centres, etc.”

Leftovers Edmonton's City Coordinator Garnet Borch shares what food rescue means.
Photo: Leftovers volunteers

When asked if businesses that are approached tend to be on board right away or reluctant, Borch admits that the response varies.

“A lot of stores – [with] the way they’re operating – don’t have a way to deal with their waste if they have any. Either they’re already donating to another organization or like with a lot of restaurants – it’s such a competitive industry – they don’t have a lot of waste. They can’t afford to have that. If they do have waste, generally they are interested in participating.

“But the other thing we found recently is with the pandemic, the managers and store owners are extremely busy trying to deal with all of the challenges they’re experiencing,” Borch observes. “So trying to start new initiatives for them when they’re already making so many adjustments has been challenging.

“Paraiso Tropical was a bit of an exception to that,” comments Borch. “Right away Jesus was like ‘Yeah, absolutely. That’s something we’d like to participate in. What are the next steps?’ So right from the beginning, Paraiso Tropical was very enthusiastic to support and donate food that they were otherwise having to throw out.”

From the food vendor...

While the food rescue initiative with Paraiso began in mid-August this year, it’s a bit of a coincidence that October – the month of Thanksgiving and trick-or-treating – was also the month in which Leftovers celebrated its birthday and also launched Food Rescue in another Canadian city, Winnipeg.

So far, Paraiso Tropical has donated an assortment of items from both store locations, including fruits and vegetables, pasta, candies and other sweets, cookies, coffee, juices and different types of beverages.

Paraiso South Rescue Food donations
Photo: Gela Cabrera Loa

“Even [one of] our workers, she gave everybody two garbage bags full of crabapples from her apple tree, because it goes to waste every season,” recalls Gonzalez Rivas Jr.

“And that’s after she gave it to all of us and after we went to her house and made like a gazillion apple pies. And she still had a ton of [apples],” adds Paraiso co-owner and manager Bruna Campos Gonzalez with amusement. “[Our coworker] calls me one day – it was like 7:30pm – she’s like, ‘Bruna, I’m just dropping off the apples for the Food Rescue tomorrow.’ She went out of her way to go.”

...to the service agency

To date, three agencies have benefited from the Paraiso's Rescue Food donations: Hope Cottage, a live-in care centre; Islamic Family & Social Services Association (IFSSA); and Action for Healthy Communities (AHC), a non-profit charity that mainly serves newcomer families who have settlement challenges in Edmonton. Given that Paraiso Tropical is a Latin American grocery store, one has to ask: is that a barrier for some recipient organizations to make use of the food?

“[Hope Cottages] received donations from Paraiso Tropical the first week, and they said, ‘Hey, we’re not sure what to do with some of these foods,’" remembers Borch. “[They’re] a live-in care facility, so there’s people who have routines that they follow quite closely and things out of the ordinary were more challenging for them to make use of.”

Rescue Food donations from Paraiso Tropical Latin Food Market
Photo: Leftovers volunteers

“But I would say, rather than a hindrance, [culturally specific food] is something that’s extremely valuable, because if one is experiencing food insecurity, it’s difficult to get any food on the plate, and the culturally relevant foods are even more challenging.” Borch counters, who further sought out a service agency that was serving the local Latino community when Paraiso joined as a Rescue Food donor. “I can imagine as an immigrant or a refugee in poverty or struggling to meet their needs, having these donations that are familiar and a touch of home can be extremely valuable, and that’s what we tried to do in connecting with Action for Healthy Communities.”

Suraj Khatiwada, the Program Lead for AHC’s Settlement & Integration program, along with Operations Coordinator Mustafa Zahid, work together to connect food rescue donations (including from Paraiso) to families in need.

In addition to settlement services, AHC does community development work that supports individuals and grassroot community organizations through community building activities, along with providing programs in the areas of employment, business development, and entrepreneurship.

Mustafa Zahid and Suraj Khatiwada from Action for Healthy Communities
Photo: Kristina de Guzman

Zahid shares that from March to July this year, AHC actually had a program in which the organization’s own volunteers delivered food to families in need twice a month. But after funding from that program ran out, AHC has since been referring families with food access challenges to Edmonton's Food Bank and more recently, delivering food donations brokered via Leftovers.

Food rescue work can be unpredictable

Through Leftovers, six families connected to AHC have so far received food donations. Compared to the Food Bank, Khatiwada says there are both positive and challenging aspects with food rescue donations.

“In one sense, [through Leftovers], families are getting support directly through volunteer support, which is a better approach that can make a difference in their lives. But they are getting [a smaller] amount of food compared to Food Bank donations.”

In Edmonton alone, there are currently between 20 to 25 businesses (if counting each farmer’s market, rather than each vendor, as a business) donating food to Leftovers. Each month, 15,000 pounds worth of food is being rescued.

Leftovers volunteer heads to Action for Healthy Communities to deliver rescued food
Photo: Gela Cabrera Loa

Both Zahid and Khatiwada appreciate the work behind food rescue, but also point out challenges from the agency side of things that others may not think about in the effort to be more sustainable.