Crates of unsold food from grocery stores arrive at Food Rescue in Yellowknife. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Yellowknife’s Food Rescue says its current facility is overdue for upgrade work costing tens of thousands of dollars.
The organization has received food worth more than $10 million since it was formed in 2008 to redistribute unwanted supplies from grocery stores to non-profits, daycares and other groups in need.
On the back lot of Central Mechanical Systems up a hill off Old Airport Road, crates of produce, dairy and other goods from Yellowknife’s Co-op and Independent grocery stores arrive each weekday morning.
The crates are hauled into a canvas form of Quonset hut, weighed, checked and washed where necessary, then repacked into separate crates for delivery to one of more than 20 different client organizations. Often, food that arrives at 10am is back out of the door by 1pm.
More than 70 volunteers in the past year helped the operation run.
But as crates were packed for the Salvation Army and Yellowknife Women’s Centre on a Wednesday morning the week before Thanksgiving, Food Rescue’s Gerri Whiteford drew attention to the hut that houses the operation.
“We’re going to be doing some fundraising,” Whiteford said. “We’re four years past due.”
The hut, in use since the organization formed, hadn’t been expected to last beyond 2018. There are fears that while interior tears can be taped up, a tear to the hut’s exterior would rapidly result in an unusable space for volunteers in the depths of winter.
Food Rescue studied building a replacement, but Whiteford said the estimated cost came in at $140,000 – far beyond the group’s means. In its draft budget for the year ahead, Food Rescue only expects to bring in cash donations worth $55,600 but expects to spend $74,600, a $19,000 deficit eating into reserves that grew during the pandemic but are now dwindling again.
Instead of a replacement, Food Rescue hopes to build a fresh shell around the exterior of the hut, acting as insurance against any damage to the hut itself. Whiteford said that comes in at an estimate of $40,000.
“These things are surprising,” she said of the cost, “but that’s the route we’re probably going to have to take.”
Behind Whiteford, site coordinator Joanna Grant is moving crates back and forth in readiness for the return of Food Rescue’s van (a recent purchase with federal assistance).
“It’s a little bit tight,” Grant concedes, although everyone at Food Rescue that morning says the hut suffices. “Just a few more feet would be nice. We bump into each other a lot. It’s like being in a kitchen.”
And it is, partly, a kitchen. At the back, volunteer Gail Nesbitt is washing prunes that have been discarded by one of the grocery stores but, once cleaned and repacked, will be perfectly serviceable in a crate destined for one group or another. Thursday’s delivery list includes housing for youth and vulnerable women. Friday’s list includes the city’s food bank and seniors.
On this Wednesday morning, there is milk everywhere. Not everyone wants milk – at least, not 40 litres of it – so Food Rescue keeps detailed notes about who wants what and tries to redistribute the food accordingly.
Hopefully, people want bananas this week. Bananas, like milk, are piled high.
“Bananas are a crisis around here. We always get way too many bananas,” said one volunteer. “Last Friday we got, like, 14 boxes.”
Sometimes, the week after Thanksgiving can be when some of Food Rescue’s clients get a “second wave” of turkey and trimmings. Supermarkets will move leftover turkeys and other traditional ingredients off their shelves, and most if not all of that will arrive at this hut.
One year, Whiteford recalled, a grocery store placed far too optimistic a turkey order. Many weren’t sold, and Food Rescue found itself handling a hundred turkeys.
Virtually everything finds a home, no matter what comes through the door.
According to Food Rescue’s latest annual report, presented at its annual meeting last month, out of around 141,000 kg of unsold food received by the group in 2021-22, only 4,600 kg had to be composted or discarded. The rest was distributed.
Even the compost has its uses. A sign on the hut instructs volunteers to sort the compost so that some of it can be sent to local food producer Bush Order Provisions during summer.
Some pet food, meanwhile, is shipped to Hay River’s animal shelter via Buffalo Airways, which takes it for free.
“Every agency knows what they need,” said Whiteford, looking down a list of 24 groups that will take deliveries from Food Rescue in the week ahead. “And we’ve been dealing with them for so long, we know their preferences already.
“A place like the Salvation Army? If they don’t have to buy food, they can spend the money on other programs and initiatives in the community.”