Expert Interview Series: Debra Lawson of Second Harvest About Delivering Food to Canadians Who Are Dealing With Hunger and Food Insecurity

Delivering food

Debra Lawson is Executive Director of Second Harvest, the largest food rescue charity in Canada. Debra recently chatted with us about food insecurity in Canada and how her organization gathers and distributes food to those most in need.

What is Second Harvest, and who are the people that it serves?

Established in 1985, Second Harvest is the largest food rescue charity in Canada. Second Harvest rescues fresh, surplus food that would otherwise go to waste, and delivers it to 225 social service agencies in Toronto and beyond. The food feeds people experiencing hunger, including children, adults, and seniors who access meal programs, food banks, shelters, and community services.

Just to clarify – Second Harvest is not a food bank. We do not bank any food; a majority of our food is rescued and delivered within 48 hours.

What are some of the most common perishable foods that you provide to your partner agencies?

Second Harvest focuses on rescuing and delivering fresh nutrient-dense food. Fruits and vegetables, meat, milk and milk products are the items that are most needed by the communities we serve, and make up 38% of all the food we deliver. A majority of the food is used in meal programs run by agencies,

Where does all of your food come from? How does it get to those in need?

One hundred present of the food Second Harvest rescues is donated from grocery retailers, distribution centers, and even farmers. This is good food that won’t be sold and would otherwise go to waste. Second Harvest picks up the food donations and brings them back to our warehouse, where it is sorted and then distributed to the social service agencies via Second Harvest’s fleet of refrigerated delivery trucks.

Tell us some of the myths about the Canadians who go to food banks.

Food insecurity can affect almost anyone. An unexpected death, a lost job, a bad business deal – any of these events could cause people to have to make difficult choices about where limited funds are spent. Quite often, shelter and utilities are the first priority, which means there isn’t much money left over for food. With rising food costs, money doesn’t go very far, which often means choosing not to buy expensive items like fruits, vegetables, meats, and milk. At agencies, we see seniors on fixed income who can’t afford food for the entire week after they’ve paid rent and utilities; or children whose parents are working one or two jobs but only making enough to cover the rent.

Does Second Harvest also cook food as well?

In partnership with four other organizations (YMCA, Learning Enrichment Foundation, Centr for Opportunities Respect and Empowerment, and East Scarborough Boys & Girls Club), Second Harvest created The Harvest Kitchens program to provide training in food preparation to adults and youth who experience barriers to employment. Working under the supervision of food service professionals, Harvest Kitchen trainees learn the skills of the trade, while turning recovered food into nourishing prepared meals that Second Harvest then delivers to agencies lacking adequate kitchen facilities and resources to prepare foods for families and individuals in high-need communities.

Can you share any success stories from your Harvest Kitchens program?

Here’s one about Curlina, who first learned to cook while growing up in Grenada. It was her grandmother who patiently taught her how to prepare meals and bake cakes without the need for measuring ingredients, and it was these days in the kitchen that she first thought she could pursue a culinary career.

In the Harvest Kitchens program, that’s exactly what she’s doing. At Harvest Kitchens LEF, Curlina is doing much more than learning the necessary cooking skills to gain employment; she’s also preparing hundreds of meals a day for people across Toronto who don’t have access to good food.

Curlina came to Canada in 1995 and was unemployed at the time she applied for the Harvest Kitchens program. She said, “I was so excited when I got accepted to the program because now I will be able to make a better life for my kids. And I’m happy that the food I’m cooking is going to someone who needs it. I once lived in a shelter, so I know what it’s like to not have much.”

In the kitchens of the Harvest Kitchens program, what are some of the most important utensils, tools, machines, and other items to have on hand?

According to Chef Pat from our LEF Harvest Kitchen, the most important items in the kitchen beyond stoves and ovens would be: fryers, proper tables, mixers, blenders, cutting boards, and (of course) knives.

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